Embrace “Uncomfortability” in Support of Marginalized Students

Nov 30, 2023 3:45:12 PM


It can be overwhelming to keep track of the seemingly daily acts of injustice that affect our education system, and it’s just as hard to know how to address these issues.

Banned book lists populate the internet; various state legislators are pushing anti-LGBTQ+ laws, and children and families nationwide are directly impacted emotionally by the horrific and tragic events in Israel and the Gaza Strip.

In thinking about all this, we must remember that being a co-conspirator within any liberatory movement requires us to be comfortable with navigating uncomfortability.”

Risk is inevitably high when engaging in this work. However, fear of risk cannot be an excuse for inaction or silence.

What should educators and education leaders consider when advocating as true co-conspirators for historically marginalized students within school communities?

1) Interrogation of Personal Biases

We are all prejudiced and biased by human nature, so we need to conduct a personal audit of our feelings and behaviors around the issues of race, class, language, gender, sexual orientation, and other identity markers.

A personal audit involves questioning our biases, examining stereotypical beliefs, and challenging our ideologies around racial and cultural identity. As teachers, we must understand how these notions impact our actions and the way we educate our students.

Columbia University professor Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz emphasizes this self-evaluation process in her extensive research and work in racial literacy development. She refers to this self-evaluation process as the “Archaeology of the Self,” where the teacher plays the role of the archeologist and performs a deep excavation of the beliefs, biases, and ideas that shape how they engage in antiracist work.

This process can bring about feelings of anger, discomfort, frustration, and denial. However, it is necessary for us, as teachers, to allow those feelings to manifest and then push through them so we can serve as active interrupters of racism and inequality at the personal and professional levels and create positive school communities that are culturally inclusive, welcoming, and affirm the intersectional identities of all students, especially our BIPOC students.

2) Agency Building

The only way we can grow as antibias and antiracist (ABAR) educators is to maintain our commitment to proactive and continuous capacity building.

In the teaching profession, one of the many ways we build our intellectual capacity as educators is through professional development. We must invest time in educating ourselves on the diverse issues, perspectives, identities, and lived experiences of historically marginalized communities to develop informed perspectives about them.  That can be done by reading books and publications, attending professional development workshops and conferences, watching documentaries, listening to podcasts, learning from verified subject matter experts, etc.

As a point of caution, when determining what publications to read, which conferences to attend, which social media influencers to follow, and what podcasts to listen to, we should always use our best discretion. Some learning resources claim to have an ABAR lens but are actually antithetical to that purpose. As a result, many teachers become misinformed about what it truly means to adopt an ABAR approach to their practice.

3) Community Building

Surround yourself with a community of like-minded individuals who are just as determined to disrupt, learn, unlearn, relearn, and grow as you are.

You also want people in your circle who will lovingly hold you accountable and call you in when necessary.  While you will come across people on social media whose ideologies don’t align with that mission, keep in mind that the goal isn’t to prove those folks wrong but to collectivize with individuals who know that you’re right and align with your mission toward achieving educational equity.   

4) Critical Humility & Empathy

We must decenter ourselves and create space in the classroom for historically marginalized students.

That means we recognize our power and positionality to know we can’t fully speak about oppressive acts against historically marginalized communities without having the lived experience. Furthermore, our privileges, positionality, and power are relative to where we are geographically. We must maintain an awareness of how our positionality changes in different spaces, and in doing so, we will always sustain a sense of grace, humility, and personal accountability when engaging in liberatory education work.

In the case of critical humility, many teachers on social media preach about restorative justice and social-emotional learning (SEL) but conveniently shy away from the difficult conversations about identity because it makes them feel guilty and uncomfortable. As teachers, when we say we’re engaging in restorative practices and SEL, we’re committed to healing, centering, and affirming our students and embracing all of who they are.

Similar to critical humility, we must decenter ourselves and take a step back to understand and educate ourselves on the emotional impact acts of oppression and discrimination have on historically marginalized communities. Through empathy comes a clearer perspective.  

5) Mistakes Are Inevitable, So Give Yourself Grace

We must understand mistakes will happen along the way. That’s to be expected when you’re honestly engaging in deep (un)learning and relearning.

Perfectionism has no place in this space. We must also understand that call-ins are not condemnations but opportunities for growth. For some of you, calling someone in may feel uncomfortable, intimidating, and even scary, but this is the work we need to do to eliminate discriminatory actions within our schools.

When engaging in the process of repairing harm, here are four questions we must consider:

  • What was the harm?
  • Who was directly affected by the harm?
  • How did the offending behavior affect others?
  • What plan can be created and carried out to repair the harm?

Punishment or exclusion isn’t the goal of this process. The ultimate goal should be community-building through means of education.

Given that we live in a society where white-dominant culture is the default, it is inevitable our mental conditioning within that culture will place us in situations where we subconsciously harm others. Sometimes, it’s from the language we use. Other times, it stems from our inaction toward injustices within our school communities. It shows up in the curriculum we teach, the books we choose to include or not include in our classroom libraries, the policies we implement, or how we allow our implicit bias to inform how we grade, discipline, or interact with different students.

It’s impossible to establish a culture of inclusion and belonging in our classrooms if we’re quick to suspend or isolate our students every time they make a mistake. Conversely, our positionality as teachers can deter students from holding us accountable when we harm them. Therefore, we must empower students to call us in when they feel harmed or unsafe. Just like them, we will make mistakes.

When we mutually share the responsibility of repairing harm within our students, we shift the power dynamic to make our classrooms equitable while reinforcing that students must be active participants and co-curators of their educational experience.

Kwame Sarfo-Mensah

Kwame Sarfo-Mensah is the founder of Identity Talk Consulting, LLC., an independent educational consulting firm that provides professional development and consulting services globally to educators who desire to enhance their instructional practices and reach their utmost potential in the classroom. He is the author of two books, "Shaping the Teacher Identity: 8 Lessons That Will Help Define the Teacher in You" and his latest, "From Inaction to 'In Action': Creating a New Normal for Urban Educators". Throughout his 14-year career as a middle school math educator, author, and entrepreneur, Kwame has been on a personal mission to uplift and empower educators who are committed to reversing the ills of the public education system in America and around the world. As a staunch ambassador and advocate for teacher empowerment, Kwame has spoken at numerous national education conferences and worked diligently to support the recruitment and retention of teachers of color in the education system. In January 2019, he was one of 35 Massachusetts teachers of color chosen by Commissioner Jeff Riley to be in the inaugural cohort of the InSPIRED (In-Service Professionals Increasing Racial and Ethnic Diversity) Fellowship, an initiative organized by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for veteran teachers of color to recruit students of color at the high school, undergraduate and graduate levels to teach in targeted districts within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. As an InSPIRED Teaching Fellow, Kwame facilitated professional development workshops for aspiring teachers at universities such as Boston College, UMass Boston, and Worcester State University and has served as a guest speaker for non-profit teacher pipeline programs such as Generation Teach and Worcester Public Schools’ Future Teachers Academy. A proud graduate of Temple University, Kwame holds a bachelor's degree in mathematics and a master's degree in education. He was honored as the 2019 National Member of the Year by Black Educators Rock, Inc. for his unwavering commitment to the advancement of the teacher profession.

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