In continuing my alliterated theme days, Throwback Thursday works, but is admittedly not a very creative title. I initially invisioned this day as a day to look back through my archives and post something from the past (which I still might do some weeks), but I also think it is a good opportunity to think back on how my thinking has changed overtime. So, today, in the wake of the electoral college officially electing Donald Trump, I’m reflecting on my own thinking about race and racial justice.
I grew up next to a small college in a 99.9% white town of about 11,000. I had two good friends early in life (a trend that would continue), Corey and Rutae. Corey was white, Rutae was black. Rutae’s parents lived in married student housing across the street from my and Corey’s houses. Rutae moved away when we were pretty young, maybe 8 or 9. I don’t know how having a black friend in my early life has shaped my thinking about race. I like to think the innocence of childhood helped me internalize ideas of equality early on. However, the presence of Rutae as the single source of racial diversity may have created a sense of “other” in my young thinking.
After Rutae moved away (and before he moved away), race was just not a thing that was talked about (my privilege is showing, sorry about that). My high school had very few non-white students and my college was arguably even more white. The field I was studying (Chemistry) didn’t pay much attention to social justice issues, so off I went to graduate school (in chemistry). When I arrived at graduate school, the population of students in my program was (for the first time in my life) less than 50% white. Many students were from international locations – largely India and China. For the first time, cultural differences were brought into stark contrast both inside and outside the classroom. This is not to say I had negative experiences, but I was directly confronted with the fact that the way I and those who look like me do things is not necessarily the “right” way to do things.
Then, I switched my graduate program from chemistry to education because my heart really was with teaching. Here was my first exposure to ideas about racial justice. While I would hope that some of my experiences with non-white folks would have provided at least some context for learning about racial justice, I think the experiences were actually used to dismiss many of the ideas presenting in the “multicultural” class. I didn’t treat Rutae any differently than Corey, my colleagues in chemistry had the same opportunities as me. Clearly, these systematic injustices were not something that applied to me! I was deeply embedded in meritocracy and the rhetoric of “equal opportunity for all”. Yet, during my experiences in graduate school, my thinking about race began to shift and I had been exposed to a new set of ideas that would inform my future thinking.
In my K-12 teaching career, I was able to use the new ideas (that I didn’t really understand yet) to which I had been exposed to make sense of things I saw in my classroom and schools. One of the schools I taught in was predominantly n0n-white. I saw first hand how racist policies, power structures, and micro-aggressions impacted the students of color in the school. I developed relationships with students of color and heard their frustrations with a system they had to navigate while the same system catered to their white peers. I no longer believed in equal opportunity for all and finally understood how racism is held up by implicit power structures while people get to claim racism is dead because of the lack of overt bigotry (which isn’t really lacking anymore).
My early thinking about race was largely shaped by an ethos of equality. While I’d like to say being exposed to new ideas caused me to shift toward an ethos of racial justice, the ideas alone were not enough. Application of those ideas to the very concrete experiences of my students is what helped me shift my thinking.