By Jenna Chandler-Ward
Once again, there is shock and outrage from my community, the white community — this time about what took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this week. I grew up in Charlottesville, and as recent public displays of racism became visible there, I was immediately taken back to my childhood. As I watched the terrorist attack unfold on TV, I saw white supremacists march across the campus of the University of Virginia, where I used to play as a child. I saw the counter-protestors assemble in my old church. I saw the wounded being taken to the hospital where I was born. As saddened as I am by it all, I’m not shocked. In fact, to me, this violent outburst makes perfect sense.
The University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson, has recently made public the ways in which slavery both created and maintained the university up until the Civil War. Many black people in the community still call the university “the big plantation.” And though many in our country still do not like to acknowledge this about our beloved founding father, and though he attacked the British for bringing the slave trade to the colonies, Jefferson owned more than a hundred slaves at the time he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Though he penned the line about all men being created equal, he owned more than six hundred slaves in his lifetime. Once Jefferson understood that abolition would in fact cost him actually money, he became remarkably silent on the issue.
In 1959, the elementary school I attended (named after Charles Scott Venable, a Civil War colonel) chose to close its doors rather than integrate as the courts had mandated. Later that year, the school re-opened under court order and admitted a group of African-American children that became known as the “Charlottesville Twelve.” One of the twelve, Eugene Williams, has reflected on the impact of this and other integration efforts: “What comes to mind, still to this day there is no real thought-out plan to desegregate. That’s why our schools are not measuring up academically and providing a good education for all students.” Looking back after a lifetime fighting for civil rights, Williams says, “It’s just so interesting the snail pace of progress, and all the roadblocks to doing the right thing.”
Other area businesses, such as local hub Buddy’s Restaurant, also closed their doors rather than serve black people in the community.
When I attended Venable in 1974, there were two faculty members of color, including my Japanese music teacher who taught us cotton-picking songs in music class, such as, Jump Down, Turn Around, Pick a Bale of Cotton. I understood, even in first grade that there were separate rules for white students. I felt the preferential treatment even then. The school's current website boasts that the school is part of the University of Virginia neighborhood, which in part it is — facing university-associated buildings on one side. On the other side, however, is a distinctly black neighborhood that gets no mention. The city, like the school, had no plan for how to desegregate.
In 2009, the Charlottesville City Council publicly apologized for resisting desegregation back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I read the apology online in my classroom and started to weep. The racial confusion and horror I have felt from such a young age came from these years at this school and in this community.
Now, in 2017, many in the nation are surprised that such a morally abhorrent racist display could take place in such a seeming liberal, university town. Yet the city, the state, and the country have never fully brought to light their racial crimes. History has been distorted, whitewashed, and (for many) forgotten. This community — and indeed the nation — has never fully uncovered all of the systems of oppression. By obscuring them, too many of us allow ourselves to believe racism, racial oppression, institutional segregation, and a host of racial inequities are things of the past. In doing so, we who are white remain complicit in these ongoing injustices. We who are white, even those who express anti-racist views and would never take part in bigoted, hateful rallies like the one in Charlottesville, have been remarkably silent over the year. In doing so, we’ve fooled ourselves into think things are OK.
We white folks need to stop wondering why this has happened, and instead, look inward to examine the ways in which we — and, yes, this includes liberals — continue to benefit from our own lack of reflection, from our silence. Although this recent event took place in the South, racism is not just a product of the South; the rest of the country often feels immune to public displays of racism. They think it can’t happen “here.” But it can, it has, and it will.
As I prepare to return to the classroom for another school year, I am thinking not only about how I should teach about racial hatred in our country, but also about white silence; because we need speak truth to power in order to reconcile. But then I also want to teach my students about white role models who were and are true allies and activists. Until we show our students something more than white folks wringing their hands over virulent racism, saying, “What can I do?” white students will only see anxiety, shame, and guilt as response options.
Might there be a time when kids can rattle off the name of white abolitionists and white civil rights activists with the same speed as we say Frederick Douglass, MLK, and Rosa Parks? Activism and allyship are learned skills that require practice, just like math or grammar. How can I give my students opportunities to practice these skills? How can I tell my students that the civil rights era is not over? As activist Sean King has said repeatedly, “If you ever wondered what it would be like to be alive in the Civil Rights Movement, we are living in that time, RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW.”
Perhaps most important, we who are white teachers must address what happened in Charlottesville and what is happening around the country. To be silent is another form of whitewashing. Not talking about it for fear that it is too complicated for kids to understand or too difficult for us to talk about, only leaves white students out of the conversation. Students need to have these conversations in order to become informed and racially literate, and also to be less vulnerable to the gratification of feeling superior — a position built upon an ideology of lies.
No doubt, teachers have had to figure out age-appropriate ways to have other difficult conversations with students. The key to success is wanting to have these conversations. So how can white teachers not become roadblocks to doing the right thing when it comes to addressing racism? What is the cost of having difficult conversations about race with students? What is the cost if we don’t?
Please leave comments below about how you are planning to address recent events when you get back to school.
Jenna Chandler-Ward is the co-founder of Teaching While White and teaches English and drama at the Meadowbrook School of Weston (Massachusetts). She is also the co-director the Multicultural Teaching Institute.
Looking for guidance on how to respond to events in Charlottesville? A few resources for teachers are available on the TWW Resource page.