By Jen Cort
“What can I contribute to conversations about equity, diversity, and inclusion?” I asked my colleagues.
At the time, I was considering leaving my work as a school administrator and going into school and organizational consulting. When I asked the question, I thought I was only looking for affirmation about my credentials and credibility with audiences. But looking back, I now realize on a subconscious level I was looking for affirmation that I am, first and foremost, a good person. I wanted to hear that I am a good white person because I engaged in social justice work my entire life; I am a good cisgender woman because I supported my transgender loved one as he transitioned; I am a good heterosexual woman because I have always been an advocate for LGBTQ communities; I’m a good Christian because I am Quaker and our faith is based on equity and social justice. I quietly celebrated the number of times members of marginalized groups told me I “got it,” I am “legit,” I have a “honorary membership card” in the justice club.
So I was completely thrown when a colleague responded, “You can’t contribute because you don’t get it. More than speaking with us, we need you to listen. I am tired of being the one person in the room asked directly or indirectly to speak for and answer for everyone of my race. I’m tired of having to ask myself, if I should address a microaggression or let it go. I’m tired of hearing white people say that, because they are good — or think they are good — they are not biased. I’m tired of seeing the majority of those in the room only engage in these conversations when they are in a ‘diversity workshop.’ I am tired… just tired.”
I was taken aback. But when I let down my defenses, I could immediately recall times when I showed my lack of understanding. As a young school counselor, for instance, I once had a black colleague who called me out on my implicit bias. Instead of listening, I challenged his statement, cut him off with a litany of comments that are best summarized as my attempt to definitively demonstrate that I am a good person. I pointed out that, as a kid, I grew up on a commune where we focused on social justice all of the time — therefore, I could not be biased. I retold other stories of moments that proved my racial awareness. Looking back, of course, it was clear that I was only trying to make myself feel good. I couldn’t own up to my own implicit bias, even though I know we all have our biases. Even worse, I now realize many of the stories that made me proud were classic examples of white savior moments in which I felt I was being a good white person by “fixing” a situation.
My colleague’s comments made me realize that, if I wanted to do this work effectively, I’d have to let my audiences know that, while I am committed to social justice, while I have certain knowledge and skills at moderating conversations and identifying institutional challenges, I can never fully understand what it’s like to be a person of color. What I can make clear to myself and to others is that I will listen and learn.
Listening and learning does not come easy to those in the dominant culture. Even though I practiced diligently, it still felt like marbles in my mouth the first few times I honestly and openly introduced myself in public: “I am a cisgender, Christian, middle class, heterosexual, married, white woman. Except for being a woman and from the South, I am in majority group in all other areas and afforded innumerable privileges, including that I won’t see my blind spots and won’t learn to see them if they are not pointed out. Please tell me when I bump up against one of your social identifiers and/or convey a microaggression. Please do not feel you have to educate me, because so often you are in the position of educating others, but please tell me if I’ve conveyed a microaggression so I can deepen my own understanding.”
Introducing myself in this manner makes me vulnerable. I used to hope that no one would correct me when I revealed any hint of bias or lack of knowledge or committed a microaggression. If not called out, my “goodness” would remain intact. But I remind myself that if I’m not called out on occasion, I won’t learn — and if I don’t learn, I can’t help change our longstanding system of discrimination on numerous fronts.
The first time I was corrected for a biased comment, I had said to a group of students, “Tonight, we are going to have a forum with all of your parents. What do you think we should talk about?” (I always ask students what we should tell adults). Afterward, a student came up and said, “You should not assume we all have parents.” He was right, and it stung. I could have said that, of course, I didn’t think all students lived with their parents. I could have said that, given the scenario, I was nervous and simply misspoke. Either of those responses would have made me feel better in the moment, but they also would have made the interchange all about me and my feelings, not about the student and his feelings. So I thanked him for pointing out my bias and said I would do better next time.
To best support students, teachers have to examine the impact of their every comment, particularly when their intent and their impact contradict each other. Teachers also need to let students know it’s OK to point out these contradictions.
Workshop participants informing me of my blind spots remains challenging for me. It’s always difficult to be corrected — to have one’s biases revealed. But I practice responding in a manner that makes it clear I’m thinking about the speaker, not about me. To the degree it is about me, I’m focused on my openness to listen and learn. I also accept that this process should be challenging. If someone has the courage to tell me that I conveyed something hurtful, I need to have the courage to listen and to change. This is what we mean by honest dialogue. This is the point.
In leading diversity workshops, one strategy I like to use for listening — and resisting kneejerk, defensive responses — is what I call “one sentence/question, one sentence.” When we are anxious, we tend to fill space with words — prattle on in only a semi-coherent fashion. This practice most often is designed to lead us away from the essence of the moment. Answering each sentence or question with a one-sentence response forces us to stop and listen with greater focus — to listen more than talk. Each response invites more sentences or questions. In the workshop, I ask participants to continuing this dialogue process until the topic at hand is addressed. At the end, however, I also remind participants to finish the discussion with an open invitation to continuing the conservation in the future: “If you want to follow-up on this, we can do so… and if I want to follow-up, how should I do so?” These questions acknowledge that our thought-processes can take time, that many of us will continue to wrestle with the topic in our minds — especially when it comes to the complex, emotionally charged social issues that touch on all our lives — so the respectful thing to do is invite each other to meet again as needed. This is how we learn, how we grow.
I often recall the tone of voice and expression on the face of my colleague when he said, “I am tired… just tired.” He got me thinking. In schools, are we contributing to systemic discrimination by putting the burden of equity, inclusion, and diversity conversations on our few faculty/staff of color?
I strive to bear in mind that we white educators are called to remember the voices of colleagues and students who feel under great pressure because of there essential cultural identifiers — and in response we need to act. We need to sit down (or kneel) in protest, stand up for justice, demand equity and speak truth to power as directly and respectfully as we can. We need to act, unify, challenge, remain restless and alert, demand change. We need to create opportunities for all children, but especially the marginalized, to be visible and use their voices in ways that work for them. We need to do as much of the work as we can and let those in marginalized groups heal and focus on thriving. We must do this without expectations, without wanting others to comfort us, educate us, or pat us on the back.
When it comes to social justice work in schools, all educators need to act in partnership. As adults, we are collectively responsible for all students. But for those of us who are white educators, a key element is both to learn as much as we can about being inclusive teachers and learn to listen to our students and colleagues. We need to invite students to tell us when we convey a lack of cultural understanding. When we listen, we grow, and when our students talk, they grow. We also need to invite our colleagues of color to tell us when we convey a lack of understanding. When we do, we become true colleagues. We also need to hold each other accountable.
Our goal should not be to prove to others how good we are. Our goal is deeper understanding and greater support for our colleagues of color in helping our institutions become truly inclusive places where both a diverse group of students and educators thrive.
No one benefits until we all benefit together, and that starts with all of us in those privileged areas understanding that by the very nature of our privilege we cast shadows on our beloved brothers and sisters. Changes will not happen until we remove those shadows and bring everyone into the light.
All of us want to know we do our jobs well. All of us want some kind of confirmation. But when it comes to social justice work, those of us who are white need to open ourselves up as much as possible to learning. Open up and listen.
Jen Cort is a clinical social worker and educator. Her educational administrative experiences are as an assistant head of lower school, head of a middle school, and senior administrator. Cort’s therapy background includes serving as a counselor in lower, middle, and upper schools as well as private practice. Her goal is to build capacity such that they have sustainable and systemic programming. Cort consults with schools on revising/enhancing advisory programs and equity, inclusion, diversity, and justice programming.
Three Practices for White Educators
1: Ask in every hiring season:
- How are we addressing implicit bias in our hiring processes?
- Where are we advertising for positions? Are we attending diversity hiring fairs? Are we working with placement firms that support the school’s diversity goals?
2: Find a partner in your school who can observe your classes. Ask him or her to look for:
- How often you call upon students by race.
- Whether you interact differently with students based on race.
- The messages you provide that support addressing microaggressions by students and teachers.
- Signs of racial bias in your curriculum.
3: Think about the students, faculty, and parents throughout your career who have presented the most challenges for you. Asking yourself which social identifiers do they have in common? Find resources for deepening your understanding of those social identifiers and put on your calendar a timeline for exploring these topics further through readings, conferences, webinars, professional networking, etc.
Remember when your bias is identified you several possible options listen, think, own, learn none of which include justification, negating the experience of others, or making light.