“We must devise strategies to keep naming, interpreting, and confronting racism”. Beth Balliro answers a question sent to Steve Locke.
EDITOR’S NOTE: On January 11, 2011, The Good Man Project ran a letter by Steve Locke to GMP founder Tom Matlack titled “Why I Don’t Want to Talk About Race.” The post quickly went viral, gathering well over a quarter of a million pageviews. It continues to be read, shared and questioned today.
Recently, a reader, Scott B., read the post and had questions based on his own experience having to deal with racial issues. Steve Locke thought the question to be a valuable discussion point, but did not want to be put in the “black authority” position. So he asked for help from Beth Balliro, a fellow visual artist who also works with developing art skills in young men of color in urban schools. Steve and Beth are long-time friends and colleagues, have had many conversations about these issues, and Steve trusted that Beth would be able to move the discussion forward with the respect it deserves.
Scott’s question and Beth’s response is published below. We can think of few conversations more important than this one on The Good Men Project.
Dear Mr. Locke,
I am a 3rd career, 1st year math teacher in rural Kansas. I am 38 years old, and I grew up in a poorer area of Wichita (metro area), then lived in Columbus, Ohio and Glendale, California. As part of how I try to connect and educate my students, I try to get across to them a sense of the diversity that I have seen in America, that they themselves have not yet experienced. My school district is 96% white, and of the remaining 4%, most of those students are raised in white households as adoptive children.
Sorry to give a biography, I am trying to set up the context for a question of advice.
I had a student come to me this year after leaving her english class who asked me a question about race. She asked when is it ok to call someone black? I responded that I thought as long as the reference was descriptive of an individuals appearance for the goal of how know you are talking to the right person, or meeting them somewhere, that was ok. But to identify a group as “blacks do this” or “whites do that” or “Asians are good at math” (I had an asian adoptive student who would claim this, who I tried discourage her own stereotyping”), was to ignore individual differences in place of preconceived and prejudged notions about what it means to appear a certain way.
I have two questions. First, I am wanting to know if you feel I could answer that question better in a way that helps a high school student who has very little exposure to actual diversity be better prepared to be more empathetic in the future. Second, in your letter/essay, you make specific mention that you don’t think that there can be much good that can come from non-whites talking about race, because there are plenty of resources and discussions that have already occurred. Do you feel that the best way to educate young adults about being inclusive and sensitive is to refer them to previous conversations that people have had and to read literature? I understand that you will feel that it is not the place of one man to answer that question. But I am asking you anyways, because your letter makes me believe that you might be able to help me understand how to teach this topic better.
If you do not agree, I hope that you will forgive my presumption.
Steve Locke has asked me to respond to your inquiry regarding race and teaching and I hope you find some of my thoughts useful. As a career educator and white woman, it has been my goal to insure that the concerns of race and power are openly addressed in any learning environment, and it is from this persuasion that I interpret your letter.
It is my belief that the unspoken dominance of white-supremacy flavors the character and climate of most of our public schools. The foundation and function of schools, despite the humanitarian interests of many of us who work within them, is to stratify the classes and maintain the brutal hierarchies of our culture. Of course there are outlying schools, educators and outrageously transcendent students that counteract this reality—but they are rare.
Statistics overwhelmingly describe the unjust conditions of schooling and are easily accessible (simply view the websites of the A.C.L.U., Children’s Defense Fund, N.A.A.C.P., Schott Foundation). In your state, for example, merely 54% of Black males complete high school, versus 80% of their white counterparts. The promises of American Education have been doled out along lines of race with startling clarity.
It is the project of white-supremacy to make this clarity murky, and we must therefore devise strategies to keep naming, interpreting, and confronting the iterations of racism as they appear.
I am brought to another subject here, as I am reminded of a book that a farmer friend once recommended when I was having trouble in my garden, Weeds and What They Tell Us. In the text, particular weeds are named (as in a field guide), so gardeners can interpret the soil’s particular hospitability, and then confront these conditions by adding supplements to the soil. As an experiment, I am using this strategy to “read between the lines” of your inquiry and name and interpret the “weeds” that I encounter. I offer that it is your task to then confront them.
Weed #1: White Privilege Denial
It is interesting to me that you do not proclaim your race, yet you provide many other descriptive facts about yourself to “set up the context” for your question. One must therefore assume that you feel your identity, as a “3rd career” teacher, is more relevant to this inquiry about race than your own racial position. We are left to interpret that you are likely white, and that you think your whiteness is irrelevant. I encourage you to own and confront your white privilege.
Weed #2: Taboo of Race
The very nature of your student’s question, “When is it o.k. to call someone Black?” indicates a sense of taboo in discussing issues of race, which is predominant in white culture. That she addressed the issue directly with you and not in her English class, and that you inquired directly of Steve, demonstrates a sincere interest to counter this silence. It also indicates that your school is not a safe zone for processing these issues, or that you are unaware of local resources available to you. I encourage you to connect with your colleagues and allies, and most importantly that 4% “other” in your population. Building these bridges may initiate some solutions.
Weed #3: Oppression as Exotic
You describe your goal to “educate young adults about being inclusive and sensitive”. I offer that there is no better way to do this than to investigate the many ways that oppression functions in our schools. Racism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, and many other forms of hate permeate our daily experience, despite our demographics, and they are all interrelated. I encourage you and your students to embrace your town in “rural Kansas”, and the interior of your conscience, as the epicenter for these issues, as we all must.
It is only in the constellation of these epicenters, in the brave work we must do in schools, that our social healing can begin.
Artwork by Steve Locke
…..oil on panel
…..12 x 16 inches
used with permission