Mirror, Mirror, in the Words

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Have you ever caught a view of yourself in the mirror that surprised you? Where you suddenly notice a detail that betrays what you perhaps were feeling but you thought couldn’t be seen? That’s kind of what happened to me the other day, but the mirror I saw myself in consisted of words; a series of tweets, actually.  And each tweet seemed to bring that surprising detail into sharper and sharper focus. Then there were tears.

The tweets by Sonia Gupta described what’s at stake for people of color who decide to speak up against injustice on social media. She emphasizes that it’s not a show, and not about likeability or boosting follower counts but about claiming our right to exist in a society that recognizes us as fully human and worthy. She suggests that for those of fighting now, that we will not likely see significant change in our lifetimes; that “it’s a marathon we’ll never see the end of.” I think that’s the sentence that landed with a hard thud.

All of a sudden I had strange picture of myself ‘out there’ doing what I do: supporting, encouraging, reasoning, questioning, sharing, hearing, persisting and then crumbling under the weight. For some minutes I felt weak and deflated. Naming what was going on helped me recognize myself as both fierce and vulnerable these days.

The glimpse in that unexpected mirror reminded me of something I experienced in graduate school. Part of our coursework in Group Dynamics included attendance at a weekend Tavistock Institute. In a nutshell, a group of people convene under an artificial social structure which somehow forces participants to engage with each other and explore the elements of social organization: roles, authority, boundaries, tasks, and leadership, in the process. There were large group sessions as well as smaller group meetings where the structures given varied from nearly rigid to almost no structure at all. My whole cohort of 50 attended and another 30 or 40 people from another grad program were a part of this three day event.

A lot can happen in 3 days and being in close quarters with strangers and friends all bound to this emerging social structure we couldn’t quite understand but were constructing minute to minute – let me just say, it turned out to be pretty intense. Some folks behaved in surprising ways – they got loud, they broke rules, they challenged authority, they withdrew entirely, they broke down, they rose up. The experience proved quite unsettling for some. One breaking point came for me when I confronted the roles I had taken up in this process.

Leading up to the weekend there was a lot of excitement and also concern in my cohort about what might take place, how we might respond to this experiment of sorts. I distinctly remember being a voice of reassurance, counseling others not to worry, that we would be fine. During the weekend we were frequently asked to acknowledge the roles we were taking up in various settings. At some point it dawned on me that I, one of a handful of black women in my cohort, had taken up a “mammy” role in responding to the worries and fears mainly of my white male classmates before and during the institute. No one had asked me to take up the role, per se. I enacted it myself, with no particular forethought.

I can’t remember what event or words triggered my awakening. But I sat weeping for several minutes in the wake of that realization. Ever since then I have developed a greater sensitivity of how I select and take up various roles in different contexts. Sonia Gupta’s thread of tweets made me think deeply about the roles that I take up on social media. While my inclinations to nurture and support others remain strong, I have also become fiercer in my resistance to the social and political status quo. I find myself angry more often. I’m ready to fight.

And that new readiness – to fight, to assert, to push back, to protest – has me feeling like I’m holding my breath a lot of the time, trying to stay functional and constructive. But underneath there is sadness, fear, rage and exhaustion. Those are as real as my desire to assist and uplift. That the balance has become so delicate is perhaps the reality I hadn’t yet confronted.

image via Pixabay CC0

 

Timely, Relevant Feedback

Today I had a second grade student give me some honest feedback at the end of class.

“Mrs. Spelic,” she said, “I feel like you don’t respect us when we do good. Even if we do everything we’re supposed to, you do this,” she covers her eyes and lowers her head, imitating me to a T.

I looked her in the eye and said, “You know what? You’re right and I’m sorry.”

At least that, at least I was able to admit my shortcoming and let her know that I understood what she was telling me. But as I went through the rest of the day, her words and the sentiment lingered. I definitely see her point. I clearly don’t give enough credit where and when it is due in that class. Rather, I let the three or four mega attention-seekers steal the show, time and time again.

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I also wish I were this beautiful while thinking about my students and their needs.

Every lesson I wish it were different. I wish I was different.

And yet, empirically speaking, it is certainly not every lesson that feels like a management parkour rather than a well planned set of learning experiences. There are certainly days, classes and moments where we accomplish all we set out to do and end the period with smiles on our faces and they leave with an Awesome Gym Day Award in hand. That happens, too. Sometimes. Not frequently but sometimes.

And in the student’s feedback there’s a very clear way forward.  She told me what I need to do differently. She’s been in school long enough to know what works for her and has learned how to ask for precisely that. Quite an accomplishment in and of itself, actually. So if I have any claims on being a growing, learning professional, I will heed her advice and get on task with acknowledging students ‘doing good’ and stop overemphasizing the negative.

The first step is listening. The next is making a tangible change. If I succeed (or if I don’t), I am certain that relevant feedback will not be far behind.

 

image via Pixabay.com

It’s Not Only White People Who Need to Learn about Race

I started to write a post about how much I still have to learn about race in the United States and quickly realized that I could not tackle that in under 700 words, nor would I like to try. For me as an African-American woman there are all kinds of assumptions out there about what I should know about race and racism. There is less talk about what I may need to learn.

That said, some recent readings have opened my eyes to the ways in which race plays such a significant role in American society still, even though much of the rhetoric around racial socialization (color-blind, post-racial) would have us believe otherwise.  My encounter with each new text revealed layers of my own misconceptions, false beliefs and fuzzy comprehension.

The first read proved to be a conceptual game-changer:

Reproducing Racism: How Everyday Choices Lock in White Advantage, by Daria Roithmayr, NYU Press 2014. This book blew me away with its sobriety and clarity in describing how current racial disparities in American society may be locked in even if all forms of discrimination were to cease today. Roithmayr’s case is well argued and draws on current research in law, sociology and economics. She writes in the introduction:

Where conventional models focus on intentional discrimination, the lock-in model focuses on self-reinforcing structural processes like social networks and family wealth distribution. The lock-in model emphasizes both the unfairness of early anticompetitive conduct and the need for significant government “antitrust” intervention to dismantle white monopoly on advantage.

Reading this book felt like an odd form of cleansing. At last I understood much more about the world I grew up in and how my family’s history is reflected in her descriptions of the early consolidation of white advantage. Roithmayr explains not just how white advantage became the norm in such areas as political participation, housing, education, and employment, but also how it perpetuates itself even when steps are taken to break the cycle. This text is essential reading for anyone who struggles to understand white privilege and every form of racial gap we can identify in current American society.

Shortly after completing the Lock-In book, this link to Black Women in the United States, 2014,  arrived in my inbox.  The report was published by the Black Women’s Roundtable of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. Just reading the executive summary, I got chills while recognizing how many significant  struggles remain, particularly in the areas of health care and economic advancement.  And these disparities despite remarkable increases in educational attainment.  Although there are points to celebrate, I was struck by how much ground must still be covered by black women in the US.

Finally, I ran across an article on the National Association of Independent Schools’ website: What White Children Need to Know about Race. At this juncture I had to recognize that in spite of my efforts to make sense of my own racial experiences through targeted reading, reflection and substantial dialogue, I still have much to learn about facilitating and initiating dialogue regarding race with my students, colleagues and even within my family.  This article by Ali Michael and Elenora Bartoli details the reasons why white families are likely to avoid talking explicitly about race with their children, the implications this tends to have for white children’s understanding of race and racism and then outlines specific steps that schools can take to actively support the development of positive racial identities. What I appreciated so much about this article was the authors’ capacity to show what can be done without shaming the reader for not knowing. They conclude with this:  “If we want a racially just world, we need racially aware schools.”

Here’s my lesson: it’s not just white people who need to learn about the dynamics and realities of race in America. It’s me, too. These readings alert me to the fact  that each of us has the opportunity to change and influence racial dynamics for the better, now and in the future. And before I can make a difference, I have to understand difference in many more ways than one. The buck starts here.

And I’m about to go read Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations.”

 

Recalibrating “enough”

My sense of “enough” is being recalibrated moment by moment.  What it means is that circumstances are helping me to recognize that what I may have considered lacking before, now strikes me as more than adequate.  Where it would certainly be possible to perceive a problem on the horizon, it has become equally as easy to see that things are as they are and in my response I can choose to make a problem of it or not.

Byron Katie instructs us in Loving What Is to “stop arguing with reality.” This straightforward maxim has helped me to do just that. As a result my “enough” becomes an instrument of ongoing learning. It can shrink and grow as the situation demands. Where would it help for me to listen more and more carefully? When what I thought what I wanted doesn’t pan out the way I was sure it would, how flexible is my sense of “enough”? When might I have achieved more by doing less? These are the times when I become more intimately acquainted with the real levers of change: reflecting, rethinking, unlearning: all precious opportunities to recalibrate my personal understanding of “enough”.

As a new year approaches, I wonder how my sense of “enough” will be stretched and challenged. Drawing on the wisdom of Peter Block, I may find comfort in the suggestion that The Answer to How is Yes.