By Melinda Tsapatsaris
Note from the TWW staff: As we start back to school in a cultural climate in which too many whites have turned their backs on racial justice or have been outright hostile to people of color, we were happy to receive the following essay written by Melinda Tsapatsaris, head of school at The Westland School, a progressive independent school in Los Angeles. Her voice and leadership emerge at a time when so many leaders in both public and private schools are, at best, mute on the topic of racial justice and, at worst, asking teachers not to engage in social/political discourse that may make white kids uncomfortable.
At Teaching While White, we want to see all teachers engage their students in conversation about race and racism. In particular, we want white students to better understand the racial history of this nation and the ongoing racism that targets people of color so that they can see themselves taking part in the fight against racism.
Melinda Tsapatsaris’s pledge here has inspired us. We hope it will encourage educators everywhere to make their own pledges for justice. We also want to thank Rasheda Carroll, an amazing educator and director of equity and inclusion at Wildwood School in California, for connecting us to Melinda.
I find it necessary to state my intentions and create a pledge as a white, antiracist activist. My purpose is to synthesize my beliefs and goals for myself as a citizen who cares deeply about social justice, to inspire others, and to demonstrate my support for and solidarity with people of color during this time in the country when overt racism and modern racism are prevalent. This is an imperfect list. It’s me, though.
- I pledge to practice self-focus. To voraciously read texts written by people of color and white antiracist activists (articles, nonfiction and fiction books alike) that expand my perspectives, push my thinking, and keep me striving to be an empathetic, lifelong learner.
- I pledge to aggressively call myself out on my own biases and prejudices and to continue to unpack the ways in which I have caught racism.
- I pledge to pay active attention and seek to understand the political, economic, psychological, and social-emotional significance of oppression on people of color.
- I pledge to bring up “uncomfortable,” not-light topics with other white people at cocktail parties and other gatherings.
- I plan to stay active in organizations committed to equity and inclusion. This includes local AWARE meetings that put together white folks in intracultural groups to dismantle their privilege and seek out ways to develop antiracist identities. As Malcolm X stated in The Autobiography of Malcolm X: “I tell sincere white people: ‘Work in conjunction with us — each of us working among our own kind.’ Let sincere white individuals find all other white people they can who feel as they do and let them form their own all-white groups, to work trying to convert other white people who are thinking and acting so racist. Let sincere whites go and teach nonviolence to white people!” I also commit to being a part of ongoing training through Visions Inc., an organization that promotes change on the personal, interpersonal, cultural, and institutional levels through intercultural and intracultural groups.
- I commit to being a parent who doesn’t avoid talking about differences, especially racial differences, with my white children. I will expose my children to an array of literature that expresses stories from many different perspectives.
- I will also model to my children the importance of not avoiding contact across differences. I pledge to “get proximate” across differences, as writer and activist Bryan Stevenson espouses. I commit to being aware of the “bubblefication” of my world — to be aware of the “danger of a single story” that novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so brilliantly warns us about.
- I pledge to continue to work with young people in schools (from all political backgrounds) to help them use their minds and hearts well: to share their perspectives with confidence, to weigh and grapple with other perspectives, to use evidence to back up their opinions, to collaborate with grace even when they are frustrated, to value the arts, to have a keen sense of their own moral compass, and to always be motivated to serve their communities.
- I pledge to remember that people, specifically other white people, are where they are in terms of understanding the impact of institutional racism — and as such I need to lean into uncomfortable conversations to disagree when necessary, but not to blame or shame them. For me this means not shutting down those who say, “No, all lives matter!” but engaging, questioning, and approaching them with curiosity, compassion, and firmness — both in person and on social media.
- I commit to being part of communities that value diversity and multiculturalism, so that I am surrounded by individuals who care deeply about serving the common good and striving toward social justice.
- I commit to organize, to call my state and federal representatives and express my opinions. I will volunteer for campaigns that matter to me.
- I will continue to pray for President Donald Trump because Lord knows I don’t know what else to do about him. I will actively critique his disregard for institutional oppression, worry about his mental health and decision-making capabilities. I will not mock him.
- And as Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” So I pledge to dance.
- I will practice self-care. As one of my friends who is active in the white antiracist community shared with me, quoting from another, “It’s actually not a marathon. Practice self-care when you need to because it’s a relay race. Rely on others to run with the baton, too.
Take Away: So, what’s your pledge? What commitment to racial justice are you willing to make? The beginning of the school year is such an important time to be intentional. If you have a goal you are willing to share, please leave a comment below. To help in the conversation, we also included some related resources for educators. See our list of Foundational Texts and Being an Ally in our Resource section.