Where I am could be where I am also not My boundless ignorance offers the negative space of my knowledge How I seem continues to vary even when I am still so much the same Off one platform while hanging onto another and another salt will dissolve in water until the sodiumnity of it takes over and the water becomes something else no longer potable How I consume becomes the feature and I let the bug consume me I am an animal, a creature not lost but amply surviving Instinct matters as much as genius especially when I have neither Creativity sparks interest but is actually an uneaten crust of who I might be You cannot trouble me If I flock I am open to flounder do I need wings or gills or legs when I come to my senses which ones will be denied access? Knowing that to fit magnifies the jest of our striving In the saltiest sea, one cannot swim only float.
Practice Over Perfection – A Keynote
(Below is the text of my keynote talk from August 18th, 2020 including a sample of responses from participants.)
Thank you, NYSAIS (New York State Association of Independent Schools), for inviting me to spend some time with you today. I am honored and nervous.
Thanks, too, Jane Anne for the very kind introduction!
I want to share some thoughts about our field, PE, and how we can incorporate anti-racism into our daily practices with students.
First of all, I want us to consider a few things:
- This is my first keynote address.
- I’m an actual teacher. A PE teacher, in fact, who just finished her first day of classes.
- I want us to interact, so I invite you to use the chat to respond to a couple of prompts later and we’ll also leave some time for Q & A at the end.
You heard a bit about me in Jane Anne’s introduction. Here’s a slide to go with that. 😉
Thinking about what a good keynote should do for folks, here’s what I hope you’ll be able to take away from our time together.
- I want us to appreciate what’s special about what we do.
- I hope to encourage us to be braver and more critical observers of our own practice.
- Help prepare your hearts and minds for the learning ahead.
That’s a lot and think for a moment about our classes: We have students of mixed abilities, interest levels and preparedness, put them all into a class called “PE” and in many cases manage to help those students find ways of engaging, contributing, and applying themselves that can be fun, challenging, awkward, or awesome or all of those, and have most of them leave feeling as good or better than they arrived.
So of course I’ve planned a talk with multiple positive aims!
PE tends to be an all-comers affair, right? and because we as teachers can anticipate that our students will each have their own way of appreciating and/or coming to terms with our offerings, we know that we have to adapt; that one size never fits all. We differentiate and modify our activities. We offer a wide range of movement experiences to give students ideas about the many different ways they can enjoy physical activity. We read up and stay current on new developments in the field and open ourselves to change as we grow and progress. These are the steps we take to be able to serve the remarkable diversity we find in each of our classes, every time we see them. We also know that no two lessons that we give are ever exactly the same.
Given that, I want us to think about what it means for us as PE teachers to become anti-racist and wholly inclusive in our teaching practices. Now that anti-racism is topping the bestseller lists and making its way into institutional policy and mission statement revisions, most of us are familiar with the terminology and have come to expect to hear about it from a variety of organizations, but what does anti-racism really mean? And what does it mean to teach from an anti-racist stance?
Christina Torres teaches 8th grade English at an independent school in Hawaii. She’s also a prolific writer on education whose thinking I hold in high esteem. She recently published an article on the Teaching Tolerance website that I’ve been quoting a lot lately.
“Anti-racist work means acknowledging that racist beliefs and structures are pervasive in all aspects of our lives—from education to housing to climate change—and then actively doing work to tear down those beliefs and structures. Those beliefs and structures don’t just exist in primarily white and/or privileged institutions—they thrive there.” – Christina Torres, “All Students Need Anti-racism Education,” Teaching Tolerance, July 30, 2020.
Consider, throughout your day and beyond, that last part about racist beliefs and structures not just existing in our privileged white institutions but actually thriving there.
A good part of our work from here on out relies on us
1) Opening our eyes to see those beliefs and structures.
2) Adopting beliefs and structures which demand and support full inclusion.
Much of the rest of your learning plan for today with Erica Corbin, Lauren Stewart, Worokya Duncan, John Gentile and James Samuels involves unpacking the specifics of what anti-racism is and is not, how racist beliefs and structures show up in our PE practices and also the ways we can mitigate them. They’re the main event. I’m calling them “The Highlights!”
I’m the warm-up act.
- Opening our eyes and ears for equity and inclusion takes practice. And that’s where we’ll begin: with a thought experiment. To practice.
Three years ago I was asked to contribute a video response to a provocation for a workshop my friends were doing at a conference on open education.
The prompt was this: What would you do to create a non-inclusive learning environment?
It is truly a provocation!
I made my response specific to physical education and the result ended up being surprisingly clarifying.
Before I go on, I’d like to ask you to imagine what you would do to create a non-inclusive learning environment in PE.
To do that you need to create a picture of what non-inclusive might entail.
What kinds of behaviors would you encourage and for whom?
Which criteria for success would you set?
Please add some of your ideas in the chat box.
[Reading aloud some of the responses.]
Audition. Group kids by ability level. Assume everyone understands the game. Only focus on the students who need the most skill work. Certain sports for girls, other sports for boys. No positive feedback. Only play “American” sports. All games competitive. PE for athletes only. Group by body size. Make every game about winning. Focus on Win/lose only. Play the game without explaining the rules. Charge for PE participation.
Y’all are great at this!
Now I’ll share my response:
In my own response, I identified three main things I would do:
- Design all the learning around my needs and preferences
- Keep my evaluation criteria a secret
- Be absolutely OK with failing students
“What learns us this?” – this is from an old Austrian friend of mine who remembers using this question learning in English back in the 1970’s. It always makes me laugh to hear it but it also reminds me that learning often happens without explicit teaching. How does the experience change us?
What can we learn from such an exercise?
First of all, what I like most is that it forces us to think in practical terms. What am I doing in my classes? What does it communicate to students about our priorities?
Second, it can help us see our practices in a new light. We can really ask: where is the truth in the ideas I’ve just put down? How much time do I really spend on the things that I love versus the things that I like less? Thankfully, at my school my colleagues and I have a pacing guide to keep us on track.
And third, It helps us clarify what the most desirable steps in the opposite direction, that is, towards fully inclusive learning environments, could be. For instance, it has become a much higher priority for me to discuss the assessment criteria with students and agree with them on some of the parameters. Transparency.
- Here’s the second opportunity for practice:
One of the struggles we face as high achievers is the not always conscious striving for perfection. We want to get things right. We want all of our students to get it right. In my opinion, education and educators tend to wear out superlatives, especially “best”: best practices, best scores, best schools. Because in pursuit of those highest achievements, we may lose sight of growth, progress and movement. We get so tied up with the end goal, the shiny results, that we take less time and effort to appreciate and recognize the deep value of the process.
When we talk here about clarifying our practices towards inclusion and even better, the assumptions underlying those practices, my request is that you and I, let go of our need for perfection and instead be deliberate in our process (which I expect and hope will be a long one. :-)).
What that means for each of us will vary. We have unique social identity intersections which will influence our starting points and hold particular meanings in our respective contexts. And this is where we have to be radically honest with ourselves:
we can no longer pretend that who we are does not matter in the school house.
I am a middle aged Black American woman teaching in a predominantly white American international school. I am cis-gender, straight, of Christian upbringing and the product of a decidedly elite education. All of those things matter in how I show up professionally and personally with students, colleagues and parents. My challenge, our challenge, is to use our experience and expertise to create learning environments that honor the complexity embodied in each of us and in each student we encounter.
Take a moment to identify yourself. Use the chat box if you like. Just say it in your head or toss a few words down in your notes.
Father. / Black. Cis woman. Mom. Wife. / White privileged male / Woman, White, Lesbian / black american cis gender male christian from low socioeconomic class / Latino adopted male / White, cis, male, straight, christian, able body – / white woman from the midle east living and rasing my kinds in the usa today / human / white male, older in age (young at heart), blue collar, middle class / Asian, Female, Christian, Aunt, Sister …
What do you notice when you do that?
[Reading aloud some of the responses]
I see that I’m not the only one. Ideas I hadn’t thought of. Diversity of who is here. Identity is more than I think. Hard to decide which comes first: race or gender. We’re all more than one thing. my own definition has become broader in listening to others. you feel pride. What matters? What doesn’t? Complexity. Exciting with so many things that identify you 🙂 I noticed many of us stated our race when defining self.
Thank you for sharing those.
My students can see that I’m Black. How each of them assigns meaning to my being Black will naturally vary. I also know that I might easily be the only Black teacher these students even encounter in their entire school careers. Their experience with me really counts in a particular way and I want us to develop awareness for those kinds of nuances.
Another example: I wonder about how we honor the complexity of gender identity and acknowledge a spectrum rather than a binary. I’ve trained myself to say “friends” and “folks” instead of “boys and girls” or when forming groups ask students to include “all the genders” (which also gives us an opening to talk about what that means).
And I still feel new at this, still very much ‘under construction’ in this area. I’ve had to let go of perfectionism and embrace the process.
When we look at our programs, I see a few areas where identity and inclusion are very much at the center of students’ thinking in PE, whether we acknowledge it or not. During this talk, we’ve practiced thinking about inclusion and identifying ourselves. We can begin to think about how we invite students to identify themselves, the methods we use to form groups, our protocols and norms for class discussions. These are aspects of our field that are familiar and well worn. Let’s take the opportunity to review these habits and see where we can make them more inclusive, more sensitive to and welcoming of difference.
Remember, process over perfection: Make the attempts, make more attempts, notice growth.
Finishing up here… As you begin your new school years under challenging circumstances, I want to remind you and also myself that students are partners and resources in our classrooms. Yes, they learn from us AND they also use all of their powers to teach us. While they are learning about who they are and wish to be, they are pushing and pulling us to be real with them, to tell the truth.
And guess what! You already have all the resources you need to welcome your students as partners and resources in your learning endeavors!
It’s called listening.
I want to share a little anecdote about dodgeball in a 5th grade class which highlights this idea of students as resources. In a nutshell, some of my more dominant boys wanted to make it harder for tagged players to get back into the game. Some girls objected and pointed out the disadvantage it would create for certain players. Another student, a boy, suggested an alternative way to get back in the game by doing some exercises on the sideline. His idea was shot down in a heartbeat. We had a discussion.
I want to read a part of the essay that tells you how we ended up:
While there was much more to the conversation – more voices, more opinions than the ones shared here – the point for me was developing their awareness. We’re talking about a game and we’re also talking about who we are in the game, and who has power in the game, and how the game makes us feel when we play it and according to whose rules. The conversation was not about dodgeball, yes or no, this conversation was about how we play and what we are creating in the way we choose to play it.
And there’s the key – how we – actually they, students, choose to play. What rules can we agree on and how do we negotiate rules which produce fair and satisfying game experiences not only for a few ‘skill privileged’ but for the entire group? These are the questions I want us to wrestle with from time to time. Because the notion that “it’s just a game” strikes me as a cop out, a way of denying how much more we invest in becoming and staying ‘players’.
In closing and with this example I want to emphasize again the wealth of creativity, passion and purpose we have in our students. They are amazing and so are we!
It’s going to take all of us to create learning environments that are fully inclusive, that make space for complex identities and challenging discussions. We have to be able to see ourselves as champions of equity, not spectators. As PE folks we are action and movement oriented, let’s show that in our anti-racist stance. I’m with you.
We have a little time for questions.
Thank you all so much for having me. All the best for the rest of your learning and for a successful school year!
See Sherri Teach.*
Video on. I jog in front of the camera and start the exercise. A bear walk, a crab walk, bunny hops, hopscotch. I jog back to the iPad, stop the camera. Over the course of almost 8 weeks I have adjusted to putting myself, my living room and balcony on display in the interest of teaching and learning. I have tossed, caught and kicked socks, stuffed animals, t-shirts and scarves. I have crawled, rolled, skipped, jogged, hopped and galloped across the floor, the yard, my mat; sometimes smiling, other times, serious. And the constant is that I have to watch myself again and again performing a kind of instruction.
Performing instruction. Teaching by video, in my case, means creating a visual invitation to either join me directly or to watch my example as a template for practice. With video I can show things in a way that encourages imitation. My students and I are currently working with an “I do – You do” model. What we’re missing is the “we do” piece in between. They respond with a video or picture of their own, with a note or a voice message to tell me how it went. I watch, listen or read and convey my approval. I write, use emojis, or speak my appreciation. It’s a transaction, not a dialogue. It’s friendly and there’s evidence of relationship, yet we lack the opportunity to genuinely build on what has transpired. As soon as one lesson has been completed/consumed, it’s time to make space for the next.
At no other time in my teaching career have I ever spent so much time watching myself attempt to teach. And what do I see?
- I see myself trying to remain familiar and recognizable to my students. I wear the same PE garb as usual. I’m showing the movements we’ve done before.
- I see a healthy relationship with imperfection. I mess up, I try again.
- Smiles that seem to come out of nowhere which means I just gave myself the internal reminder.
- I see a surprising level of flexibility and strength and I also notice my age. Post-video I also feel my age significantly.
- I see a repertoire of good guesses about what might work and for whom.
- I see someone who actually enjoys a lot of what she’s trying to do.
- A manner of presence specific to the particular audience (“Hi Pre-K!”) and not designed for universal consumption.
I’m thinking about what all this “seeing” is good for. How will it change my practice? What’s different already?
I never wanted to be that performer teacher who had all the moves and little understanding of the curse of knowledge. But on video for my kids I may seem like that, which is part of why my misses and flubs need to be in the mix. I also notice how some of my students deliver a kind of instructional video in response to my lesson prompt. Like young how-to youtubers, some will introduce their plan, narrate the steps, and of course, thank me for watching. It’s charming and also a stark reminder of this shared online reality. They recognize platform templates and begin to imitate them. And what I am shown are literally snapshots of effort. I have no control over or confirmation of how long or successfully anyone worked on a given task. So much of this emergency teaching and learning endeavor requires a new level of relational trust. I have to trust my students and they must trust me that we are all doing our best at the moment.
What makes the video “lessons” for my students different from some Youtube PE teacher? It’s the relationship. My students will watch and follow a video by me because we have some history, we know each other. They respond to me personally. What begins as a teacher to class initiative becomes a collection of unique one-to-one exchanges. When we started distance learning, I’m not sure either side, teachers nor students were fully prepared for the oddity of this dynamic. That said, through our individual interactions it’s also true that this is how we remain present for each other; entirely real, the opposite of imaginary.
When I watch my videos it’s also one way to make my efforts entirely real to myself. There I am, that middle aged Black woman moving to and fro, here and there, up and down. Hopefully doing more than entertaining. Ideally, I’m inviting, encouraging, welcoming; offering reminders of what we do and think about in PE even without mats, balls and all of our classmates. Before this I had very little visual documentation of my years in the gym. Tons of pictures and video of kids and classes but almost none of me doing what I do. Seeing myself now, 25 years in and on the daily feels like both a gift and hurdle.
It’s no longer a question of if that’s me, it’s what will I do next to shake the tree of student interest and engagement?
See Mrs. Spelic teach.
See Mrs. Spelic skip. See Mrs. Spelic run.
Watch her jump! Watch her hop!
See Mrs. Spelic turn a cartwheel!
Teach, Mrs. Spelic, teach!
*The jury is still out on the title, “See Sherri teach.” I keep asking myself: does showing constitute teaching?
“See Sherri Invite Her Students To Do Something, Anything Related To PE On A Given Day And Share A Response As Evidence Of Engagement” – just not as catchy, right?
Landing Space, Post-PoCC
In the past, when I’ve returned to school after my singular experience at the National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference (NAIS PoCC) I’ve written a blog or e-mail to share with colleagues, to let them them know where I was, what I experienced and how it might be of interest to them. It feels like good practice on a number of levels: modeling a means of sharing professional learning after an event, giving myself a space for recap and reflection, providing conference organizers and attendees with one person’s publicly documented feedback. I may do that again this year but it may take a bit more time.
It’s Sunday. The day after the close of an intense four-day professional and personal learning experience. I have a long day/night of travel ahead and the calls of re-entry are already audible through my inbox. Frankly, I’m exhausted. The 9 hour time difference is about to serve up another punch to my somatic system upon returning home, my sleep patterns have been off since I arrived and I maximized my conference involvement by hearing all the major speakers and attending a workshop in every slot. I am deeply grateful for every conversation, shared smile, knowing nod, sudden laughter. This is that conference where I show greedy tendencies: I show up here and there and there because this special opportunity will not present itself again for another year. I am feeding my educator soul for the long season in between when I am not surrounded by colleagues of color and local conversations on justice become rare and hushed.
As I leave this place and the thousands of impressions I am holding, I feel a sense of lonely release back into the overwhelming whiteness of being. I have chosen these spaces. I am fully accustomed to being the only or one of a few. Non-threatening, amenable, easy to welcome. I don’t harp on my Blackness and that seems to make everyone feel more at ease. I’ve said it before: for white folks, I’m a very comfortable Black friend and colleague to have.
What I’m thinking about now as I head back into my life in progress, is not so much about dramatic change in myself or others. I notice that my attention is desperately looking for a good, solid place to land. A place to process and sort. A cleansing space for feeling the feels without apology; an interior home base to reassemble the pieces of myself I have given more free reign than usual in these four days. There’s gratitude, joy, concern, curiosity, wistfulness, pride, fear, overwhelm, ambition, purpose and wonder to make sense of. What’s next? Who do I need to lean on? Where can I lay some of these burdens down? Where do I need to pick up some slack? Who am I now and what is different from a week ago?
After visiting with my favorite uncle here in Seattle I’m thinking about family history. How do we account for all the unknowns which, in my case, outnumber and outsize the known? How have my ancestors’ sacrifices manifested in my life and those of my children? What does it mean to know, I mean really know, whence we came? The older I grow, the more cognizant I become of how deep these questions run. And then to understand the impact of growing up in a society that told me time and time again that my past didn’t matter. It is at turns physically painful to recognize how that double-edged sentiment has been applied to deny the legacy of dehumanizing racism while uplifting the doctrine of rugged individualism and exclusive self-responsibility. It is a shock to my system to decide post-50 that I’m ready to battle these demons.
So, attending PoCC means that a lot of my thinking has been stirred up; my emotions are hanging about me, still exposed. I am vulnerable and unprotected. To name that seems important. The conference is identity based, identity grounded, identity moving, identity shaping. That’s the wonderful part and also the risky part. I will take my time before I decide what and when to share with colleagues. I will try to be gentle with myself as I return to the ocean of other folks’ expectations. I will give myself time to process, rest and heal even if it means saying no to some things.
There were so many people at the conference who let me know that I am valued, accomplished, welcomed and loved. I am taking these gifts with me and thank you for sharing your time, care and wisdom with me.
Parallel Playlists: Music That Shaped Me
Senior year of high school. English elective: Logic, Persuasion and Belief. I wrote an essay entitled, “My Rival Is Moving Out Into A Traffic Jam” which my teacher, Mr. Nelson, absolutely loved. I was stunned by the mark he gave me and caught off guard when he lauded my work in front of the whole class. I still have that essay in my archives – 8 yellowing notebook pages of handwritten text. It’s 36(!) years old and I have always known its whereabouts. It has traveled with me from Cleveland to Providence, to Vienna, to DC, then back to Vienna. That means something.
I carry this artifact along with a few other pieces of writing I am especially proud of in an old blue folder. When I tell people that I was a “good student” in high school, what I really mean is that I was a strong writer. It pleased me to be able to wrangle words to get them to say what I wanted. It also pleased me to be have my skill recognized and praised. (Even if by the wrong name: Jeri!) I was an achiever, so the grammar of school made sense to me.
I graduated from an independent day school just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. In our class of 104, there were 6 Black students, 4 boys and two girls. The upper school, previously all male, had been co-ed for about a decade before I arrived. It was a very preppy place and even listed in The Official Preppy Handbook (1980), to the chagrin (and perhaps secret pride) of the administration. When I showed up in 10th grade I was clueless about all that, just noticed a lot of kids walking around in collared shirts and corduroy pants (no jeans allowed).
While I was there I made myself at home: found my place on the track team and in the tech theater crew. In that overwhelmingly white environment I became a keen observer of social patterns because although I had plenty of friends, they were scattered across several different cliques. As a result I had a outsider’s perspective with the benefit of insider informants. As ‘the Black girl’ I wasn’t competing for the same boys as the white girls (or so it was assumed), and among the white (and most of the Black) boys I wasn’t even in the running but I was likable and funny and easy to get along with so I enjoyed a sort of non-threatening popularity that probably in the long run saved me a lot of adolescent grief and drama.
In my all Black neighborhood, I was occasionally referred to as an Oreo – Black on the outside, white on the inside, but that designation never bothered me quite as much as it should have. In my own estimation, it felt like I had learned to make the contrasts work for me. At school and at home my academic inclinations were supported and applauded. If some kids accused me of ‘talking like a white girl’ I could only tell them that my parents talked like that, too. Of necessity I was building up a repertoire of both/and behaviors and attitudes. If I didn’t feel beautiful in the white mainstream sense of the word, I at least felt comfortable in my own skin. I looked like my dad and socialized like my mom. I soaked up the rigor of classical ballet and prized the spontaneity of school sports. I internalized my city neighborhood’s nuances while I learned to move through east side suburbia like a resident. I sang along with the Gap Band and Billy Joel. All these aspects were a part of me. I was and wanted to be many things at once.
Which brings me to the parallel playlists. When I thought about writing this post for the #31DaysIBPOC Challenge, I was flooded with possible ideas. In reading some of the initial posts, I was struck in particular by those stories which reflected on the past; on upbringing and negotiating various social contexts. So I decided to look back, too. And what I found was music. Song and dance offered me an emotional home base; countless spaces for me to rejoice and rage, recover and revive. My youngest son jokes that I have a song for every occasion. He’s not wrong.
Mr. Nelson’s favorite essay involved an analysis of song lyrics of Steely Dan’s My Rival, Billy Joel’s Moving Out and James Taylor’s Traffic Jam as illustrations of social alienation in modern America – all late ’70’s songs that were on heavy rotation on my rinky-dink turntable. Steely Dan is still my favorite band of all time. I feel like I owe half my life to Billy Joel for his song Vienna in which I felt seen and understood at 13. (“Slow down you crazy child/ you’re so ambitious for a juvenile / But then if you’re so smart/ Tell me why are you still so afraid…”) And on the same album as Traffic Jam, James Taylor’s Terra Nova rings in my ears anytime I think about the tension between heading home and staying away. These were my songs by artists who helped me know myself as I muddled through adolescence.
At the same time, I knew well the pleasure and pain of singing Heatwave’s Always and Forever, minus the expectation of having that kind of match up with any boy. The same was true for Gap Band’s Yearning For Your Love and Outstanding. I sang those songs as if my life depended on it – especially in the car driving between the burbs and home. I dreamed of that one special slow dance with a boy who actually knew how to hand dance and would show me the ropes gently and lovingly. Listening to Cleveland’s AM R&B radio station, WJMO, I would go mad dancing to Parliament’s Flashlight, while the Commodore’s Jesus Is Love made me wish I was more religious than I actually was.
Parallel playlists have been my life’s soundtrack. Soulful rhythms followed by pop rock anthems sweeping into sad boy ballads coming around to mellow funk and old school slow jams. All of those tunes belong to me, to the person I’ve become, underscoring my collection of missed wishes and dreams come true. I know the words to all these songs. In singing them, I sing myself in a thousand and one ways.
Listen to the pop playlist here. Soul playlist over here. Putting these together gave me a great deal of joy. May you find a few tunes to soften and sweeten your day!
- This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Joel Garza (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog circle).
A Complicated Response
Unpacking the unreal response to my last post. “Unreal” applies to my perception. I wrote my poem with some urgency but could not, would not anticipate the scope and depth of feedback I received. I am still reeling from the experience.
I wrote a thing about wearing my hair in its natural state to school one day. In fact, it was the fourth day of Spirit Week which called for different dress up themes each day. Thursday was ’60s Day (in honor of our school’s 60th anniversary celebration) and being the minimalist that I am, I opted for wearing my hair out, adding some silver hoops, dark sunglasses, wearing all black, and Voila! I became a symbol of the ‘Black Is Beautiful’ Movement in 3 easy steps.
When the day was done, I felt a deep need to process all the attention my new style garnered. The rush of comments and compliments felt sudden and a little overwhelming. I’ve been working at the school for 25 years. I am a known quantity. Until I wear my hair out, apparently. Blogging helped me parse the emotions of being on display (by choice), causing a stir (not intentionally), and remaining true to myself. In the morning I tweeted out a snapshot of my ambivalence.
Exactly! “In character and out of character at the same time.” It’s me and it’s not me. Based on how I usually move through school – hair worn close to my head, pulled back away from my face, braided, twisted and almost always contained – this Afro-look represented a radical departure. For the eyes of the beholders, it must have arrived like a revealed secret, a mystery unveiled. Hence, the excitement. I let folks see what I have previously chosen to keep to myself. Turns out, I have a long history guarding this aspect of my Black abundance.
In her book THICK, sociologist, Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom takes on Beauty in black and white and explains how capitalist structures insure and promote a very specific cultivation of white feminine beauty as a form of capital. “In The Name Of Beauty” is a downright masterpiece of deconstructing what we think we know and serving it back to us sliced, diced and neatly displayed. For instance, she explains
…beauty can never be about preferences. “I just like what I like” is always a capitalist lie. Beauty would be a useless concept for capital if it were only a preference in the purest sense. Capital demands that beauty be coercive. If beauty matters at all to how people perceive you, how institutions treat you, which rules are applied to you, and what choices you can make, then beauty must also be a structure of patterns, institutions, and exchanges that eats your preferences for lunch. p. 58
Pause here. Take a moment to collect yourself if you need it.
The whole essay is fire and uncompromising. Tressie McMillan Cottom allows us to get away with nothing.
Big Beauty – the structure of who can be beautiful, the stories we tell about beauty, the value we assign beauty, the power we give to those with beauty, the disciplining effect of the fear of losing beauty you might possess – definitionally excludes the kind of blackness I carry in my history and my bones. Beauty is for white women, if not for all white women. If beauty is to matter at all for capital, it can never be for black women. p. 65
It’s a lot. And I turn to this text in particular because in response to my post, I received so many kind words referring to my beauty. My point here is not to reject or deny those but to investigate my own ambivalence in receiving them. Tressie offers me a frame for that line of questioning. Choosing visibility is always fraught. Choosing visibility as a Black woman in a predominantly white space is another level of fraught. Willingly putting myself and my magnificent hair on display as a Black woman in a predominantly white workplace turns out to be a surprising choice for someone who leads a life of deliberate understatement in that same institution.
I walk into my school every day regardless of how I’m feeling about my level of attractiveness. I have work to do. And that work requires that I remain approachable, open, modest and welcoming. The show that I put on is not about me but about all the people I come in contact with every day. My appearance must afford me a high degree of comfort and flexibility and few distractions during the work day. After that’s done I just want some peace.
I went to school one day in a costume of myself, of
who I might be
if I chose
Not to give a damn
about packaging and expectations.
It’s complicated. And unfolding in my mind. My experience is not only about beauty standards and where I fit in some nebulous hierarchy. It’s partly about how I see myself and how others see me and how that is wrapped up in how we identify ourselves and each other. It’s about who I can be and choose to be at work and on which terms that can happen. It’s about the crossover effects of private versus public behaviors – costs, benefits, and fallout. It’s about markets and patterns of consumption in the attention economy. My experience is about the ongoing tension between doing and being, between choosing and being chosen.
My experience requires more words than the world may have space for. I keep writing anyway.
Tressie McMillan Cottom, THICK and Other Essays, The New Press, NY. 2019.
What Happened When I Went To School With My Hair Out
Hair out. That’s how I’d have to say it, right?
Hair out, as in: not down, not “open” as one would say in German.
I wore my hair
my natural Black hair
all day long.
Which is to say I wore an Afro.
An unpicked, unshaped tussle of curly strands
crowning my head.
A supersoft bouncy castle up top
framing my brown round face.
I added big dark sunglasses
and silver hoops,
Wore all black and a serious look
and suddenly my kids could not recognize
the teacher they were expecting.
Colleagues stopped in their tracks, smiled wide
then threw their roses at my feet.
Behind my glasses I felt protected, shielded,
I kind of liked it.
My hair out
with its own righteous agenda
let me tap into
who I might be
if I chose
Not to give a damn
about packaging and expectations.
With my crinkly crown out and about
I cannot go unnoticed.
I cannot float under the radar.
I cannot not be seen.
Being able to choose visibility
and which damn to give
are privileges of the few.
But for a limited time only
I tested the waters and dabbled in a role
I could find becoming
sharp, fierce, unbothered;
proud black all-woman.
Imagine what it means,
what it meant
to wear my hair out,
my eyes covered,
my expression nonplussed,
brown skin gleaming
surrounded by a well meaning white gaze
that wonders but can
never really know
the extent of that Black abundance.
“It’s still that black abundance?”
“Yup” LaThon told me. “And they still don’t even know.” – Kiese Laymon, Heavy. 2018
Dear Julie – Thoughts on ‘real american’ by Julie Lythcott-Haims
I heard you speak. And then I went to buy your book. The line to have it signed was very long, so I decided I’d be okay without that part.
I read some before going to bed, a little more after waking up. I read during a good portion of my long haul flight back to Central Europe. After I got back to my apartment and caught up with my husband on the phone, I sat in my big chair in the living room and read until I finished the book.
This is not my normal MO. I read a lot and I often read a couple of books at a time. real american made me change. real american compelled me to take it all in in the most concentrated form I could manage. And yes, you had me at the talk. “Killing me softly”.
I suppose because there are some parallels. We’re about the same age. I also have a couple of degrees from elite institutions. I know all about that OREO dynamic. I lived it throughout my school life and maybe even now, but no one calls it that among adults. Instead I’ve referred to myself as Sister Assimilation which captures my lived Blackness in predominately white spaces. I’m not biracial but my two sons are. I have experienced and enjoy quite a bit of privilege. I’m Black. I’m a heterosexual woman. I have a husband and an ex husband, both of whom are white. I work in education and no surprises here, I write.
I feel you.
When you describe getting ready for and attending the cotillion ball with your older brother –
“In the mirror I see that I’m playing a part in a play and am not sure I know my lines.”
I’m not used to feeling ugly but that night I feel not only ugly but downright homely… It’s like my hair is getting drunk and making a scene and I can’t do a damn thing about it.” p. 73
Of course I am reminded of all the ways I struggled with feminized beauty ideals that were not meant for me to fit anyway, where my hair was just the tip of the iceberg.
You talk about your work as Dean of Students at Stanford Law School and dealing with the parents of a student who committed suicide. You are very pregnant and sitting with 2 or 3 other administrators meeting with this grieving family. When your boss encourages you to consider going home as it is getting late, you tell us this:
“I learned that night that bearing witness to the suffering of another human being is the most sacred work we can do.” p.150
I can’t remember ever having set out this idea of bearing witness and what I want to do with my life. On the other hand, my online handle is edifiedlistener and listening is my calling. Even if I know I don’t do it well or generously all the time, I am aware of its power to heal, to offer respite, to harbor others. I try. again and again and again. In listening to your story, I dare to touch some of the rough parts of my own. Bearing witness can be catching.
Oh and these children – a brown boy and very light skinned girl – both yours. Who will they become? Who will they be allowed to be and in which contexts? Your questions, concerns and guilt speak to me in ways no other author or friend has done so far. My two brown boys and their distinct white daddies populate and punctuate my life with a host of thoughts and emotions. One son is of age and doing his thing in the world. The other is still at home, young and ambitious and athletic. They are 13 years apart these brothers who further identify as Austrians, as Bilinguals.
My blackness is clear to me and them. They see themselves as brown and grasp that there are disparities in experience based on skin color, not as obviously in Austria to our eyes so far, but certainly in the US. But as a parent we have to ask, how much knowledge is enough?
You describe giving our Black sons “The Talk” – listing all the details they need to keep straight when confronted by police.
How not to defend themselves even when they have done nothing wrong. How not to reach into their pockets for anything, not even to turn off their music. Please, baby, remember: do not reach into your pocket to turn off your music.
We teach them this while trying to also teach them to love themselves and not be ashamed of their beautiful black bodies. Of their selves. p.210
I have so many questions.
Julie, I’m writing this and it feels so easy. Like, I’m fine, let me tell you how wonderful your book is. I am so happy to do it. And yet, there’s a whole other layer to our conversation that was palpable when you spoke to so many of us who were in our own hearts having our “killing me softly” moments because we felt so seen, so crisply articulated. I, as the Black girl who struggled to be Black enough and girl enough at the same time. I, as that fiercely intelligent and well spoken child who was a source of astonishment and dismay when I outpaced my white classmates – particularly in writing. I, as that perfect integrator, friend to all, so as not to be caught fully alone which felt like a constant unspoken social risk. I, as the convenient comfortable black colleague who is so affable, flexible I could never be identified as the Angry Black Woman.
I heard all of that in your voice – all the emotions you carried and laid bare for us. And in that large assembly of school folks of color, I was allowed to feel whole and understood and that I belonged.
There’s a manuscript that’s waiting to be finished. Your talk and your book will help me get it across the finish line. I hear you rooting for me. It’s time for me to share more of my stories. It is time.
Thank you for everything.
Julie Lythcott-Haims, real american: a Memoir, St. Martin’s Griffin. NY, NY. 2017.
When My “Be Best” Means “Be Black”
When I wake up itching to write, that means something. My blogging can feel like the steam escaping a pressure cooker – forceful and insistent. In the process, the contents of the pot are transformed. When I write this way there is a distinct before and after. I change and am changed.
Did you know I am Black? Once upon a time I tweeted that I don’t generally tell people this, I let them figure it out. I say that as someone who has spent the majority of of her school and professional life embedded in predominately white institutions (PWIs) which is to say I have always been aware of difference. Of my difference. But at the same time I have also developed a host of means and methods to negotiate the ways I demonstrate, downplay or highlight that particular difference. It’s a skill. It’s a necessity.
When I was a girl I tagged along with my mother to various meetings of civic and community organizations. I was great at stuffing envelopes and placing stamps. The women (it was almost always only women) talked and I listened, relieved to be busy rather than bored. My mother was an activist but I could not register her that way when I was growing up. She engaged in and also led organizations that advocated for all forms of social justice, many of those connected in one way or another to the Lutheran Church. At the time, I could not see these things as I see them now. I could not see her as I see her now.
In my 50’s I see my mother in myself more clearly than at any other time. It’s ironic. It was when she was in her 50’s that I was perhaps the most captive audience to her movements (in every sense of the word), aged 8 to 18.
I hardly remember her speaking directly about her Blackness or being Black in those very white Midwestern Lutheran spaces. But I remember how well loved she seemed, how warmly we were welcomed to the summer institutes in Valpraiso, Indiana. And I felt like I fit right in with all those justice-loving offspring of so many church families from Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Iowa. I suppose that’s where I got my workshop start.
It’s funny to me that I would tell you about my mother when I thought I wanted to talk about something else. I’ve been struck in the last several days by Black folks writing about being Black in white spaces. This recent essay by Mychal Denzel Smith in Harper’s speaks about the dilemma of the Black public intellectual under the influence of the white gaze.
The white audience does not seek out black public intellectuals to challenge their worldview; instead they are meant to serve as tour guides through a foreign experience that the white audience wishes to keep at a comfortable distance. White people desire a representative of the community who can provide them with a crash course.
While two recent tweets reiterate and amplify this idea as it plays out in the academy:
Although I make no claim to being a public intellectual, I am a Black woman who writes publicly and shares distinct opinions. I recently had an experience that was somehow an ironic twist on this whole conversation.
I am scheduled to offer a workshop of the National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference (#NAISPoCC) in Nashville this week. The title is “Be The Power And The Point – Why You Need To Present At Your Next Conference” and the goal is encourage more educators of color at all stages of their careers to consider presenting at education conferences or join organizations to help plan them. It’s a workshop because participants will be doing the work of examining their areas of expertise and developing an intention going forward. My role is that of facilitator. In order to prepare I opted to offer a test run of my session at my school and shared an invitation only a day in advance.
My international school has only very few faculty and staff of color. And my session is geared specifically to that demographic. Nevertheless I did my level best to deliver the session as intended and I had a remarkable turnout which included the Director, all 3 principals, the Director of Technology, IB Coordinator and 3 faculty members. Of those attending 3 identify as people of color. I was thrilled at the show of support and interest. I have never had that kind of attendance for past workshops. In the end, it was a good choice. I received some useful feedback and lots of praise. I counted it as a very big win.
There was a moment during the session, however, where a question came up about how the message would be different for an audience of color. On the spot, I struggled to generate a satisfactory response. I mentioned a bit about the dimensions of the conference itself and the emotional experience of, for once, being in the beautiful and varied majority. But I couldn’t get to the crux of my purpose. When I read Smith’s essay about Black intellectual labor under the white gaze, my frontal cortex was lighting up with all sorts of recognition. In a later conversation with my colleague I was able to articulate the differences more clearly explaining for instance that as white male with role authority he is accustomed to being given the floor. This is not the case for me as a Black woman. People will not naturally defer to me or my supposed expertise in a racially and/or gender mixed group. I think he got it but it also reminded me of how possible it is to go through the world white, male and clueless about the visible and invisible differences of experience that play out in our daily lives.
My ethical survival revolves on not begrudging my colleague his question. In respecting his curiosity while at the same time granting myself the possibility of offering incomplete and imperfect responses I rebuild my capacity to continue engaging. I am under no obligation to take on the role of ‘race whisperer’ in any context. Yet as a fellow human with a different experience and outlook I aim to listen in pursuit of insight. For both of us.
To resist all this ‘race talk’ would seem a comfortable antidote for me and those like me in similar contexts. The option to try to simply “blend in” is always there, as unrealistic and impossible as ever. Deciding that my version of “Be Best” means “Be Black” and vocal and unapologetic is a renewable after-effect of writing publicly. My journey has been a long and highly circuitous one. I did not follow my mother’s path immediately or fervently. All my recent ‘race talk’ is a late stage development at best. My readings keep bringing me back to history which I at once resent and grudgingly accept.
Near the end of his generous book on how to have race conversations in the classroom, Science Leadership Academy educator, Matt Kay, tells us
Colonialism and antebellum slavery were buoyed by the most intractable ignorance; it took centuries of disruptive conversations to destabilize racism’s most basic tenets. History remembers Douglass, but not the countless teachers, parents, and mentors, both enslaved and free, who kept the toughest conversations alive under the bleakest circumstances. These people had scant encouragement. They could more readily count on cynicism, apathy, or threats from power structures that benefited from their silence. (p. 261, Not Light But Fire, 2018)
Here we are and all of this sounds sounds so familiar, so immediate, so right now. You and I belong to those countless teachers, parents, mentors who in 2018 and beyond must keep those very tough conversations alive and present. I have a platform. If I am not using it to bring others into the spotlight, to draw attention to disparities in experience, to grow our collective understanding of ways forward, then what am I doing?
*(My 11 y-o came out of his room while I was writing this and I said “Guess what. I’m writing about being Black! Again.” To which he responded: “huh, that’s a surprise.” And yes, he has a firm understanding of sarcasm.)
Kay, Matthew R., Not Light, But Fire – How To Lead Meaningful Race Conversations In The Classroom. Stenhouse Publishers, Portsmouth, NH. 2018.
*Cough, cough* Is this mic on?
Once upon a time, I was a runner. I rose each morning filled with thoughts of what my workout commitment was and how everything else fit around that. Work, child care, housekeeping and all the rest were all set up to insure that my running time was secured. I was focused on achievement and I experienced, for my standards, reasonable success. When it came time to shed this blanket identity, I struggled to find a replacement. When I could no longer call myself a runner, I felt somewhat adrift. For a while I became a seeker without a title.
I discovered new interests. I invested in education, became a frequent-flyer at personality seminars and coaching workshops. Within a few years, I arrived a new identity: coach.
*Reached this point in the post, looking for a possible exit*
*Blah, blah, blah, coaching… passionate…blah, blah…*
Part of me hates telling these kinds of stories: I did this, learned that and became this. Introduction, build-up, (there’s rarely a climax), and resolution. The stories make a circuitous path seem like a neat and straight trajectory. Such stories are so incomplete and flattened that they undermine whatever truth remains in them.
*Decides to continue with flawed narrative format anyway.*
The reason I started all this was actually to make sense of where I am now: conflicted, overwhelmed, strung out on identity finding, making, affirming, doing. Without question this inner dialogue turned outward, made public for consumption by strangers, friends and loved ones has a lot to do with it. Since I have chosen a path in social media, in the blogosphere, that has consequences; benefits and costs which I continually weigh.
Sorting myself, my thoughts, my identities in public is a choice that is fraught, fraught, fraught. Knowing that feels like a win, though. So cognizant of this tension between being and performing, telling and dramatizing; seeking and shunning attention at the same time, I’m writing to say, I am tired and I’m still here.
Because while I arrived here (online) as an educator, coach and former runner, what I’ve become is a writer who sometimes struggles to live up to the all the other pieces of me that ultimately are on display. I go to sleep thinking about the read and unread, the writing completed and the writing ahead. I wake up with new ideas and old ones. I walk through my day immersed in composition of one kind or another, forming images that beg to be recorded but for which there are not enough hours in the day. My day is awash in words I want to use and bend to my will.
For now I have stopped denying myself the mantle of writer. Perhaps that will offer some relief. My privilege in this respect stretches far. I can do and be many things at once and few will contest my claims.
(Many, many thanks to @hypervisible for introducing me to my new favorite GIF which I plan to use as often as possible, even incorrectly.)