“Dear @MrTomRad, we have a lot of common peeps and I respect your work. While I can appreciate what you're trying to do with this piece, a surge in racism is not a gift to my children. We have ruined many things for our kids that they will now have to fix vs. make even better.” Val Brown tweeted at me this morning. She was telling me a thing I was writing had very seriously missed its mark. She was not wrong. https://twitter.com/ValeriaBrownEdu/status/1018484980874469379 The piece she was referring to, “We Didn’t Do This For Nothing,” was my imagining of a speech I would have given at a graduation ceremony this year. It was written in a tone that shuffled between playful and taunting, referencing the wave of fresh horror being visited on already marginalized communities, saying, “yeah, we did that on purpose just to toughen you up and give you something to do.” I was trying to acknowledge that things were bad in this world, and that young people were our best bet for making things better. I thought I did pretty ok. Val Brown was joined quickly by Khalilah M. Harris, who added “Actually I reject the framing of "we." Who is the we that did this to them. Tell the truth and shame the devil. Further, the positioning of that generation wholesale did something to you ignores the systems actually working against them” https://twitter.com/Ed2BeFree/status/1018490248282673152 And Kelly Wickham Hurst added “This just set me all the way off. The centering of whiteness here is astounding. My god, Tom, I need you to fix this. You have actively damaged people with this piece.” https://twitter.com/mochamomma/status/1018505003940700165 They said these things, and more, as other voices I respect joined the conversation, a conversation that has continued, pointing out the many ways my piece was harmful, disrespectful, and erased or ignored the experiences of people of color.
A Couple of ThingsI am thankful that these women, these brilliant and busy women, spent time and effort engaging with me about this. It should not be their job to. It should be my job to be more thoughtful about the things I’m putting out in the world. It was tough to read, all of it, but the pit in my stomach wasn’t there because anyone involved, most especially the women listed above, were being mean. Though they had every right to be upset and to show it, their messages, again and again, show an intention to call me in rather than out. Again, though it is not their job to do so, many people involved in the thread seemed to be aware of my own likely emotional reaction and encouraged my reflections. I did not earn this, but am so grateful for it. And let me say this thing: They are entirely right. I’ve been doing this long enough to have known 1,000 times over that I shouldn’t try to get cute when I’m talking about racism, that I should be especially careful and reflective when I’m talking about race, and not let it become an intellectual puzzle and literary device, which is a shit thing to do. They made me see that when I hadn’t, and helped me reflect on that when they shouldn’t have to. And let me say this thing: White Supremacy isn’t just nazis and tiki torches, it is the ease with which I framed an entire piece about racism in the experiences of White people, through a White perspective I treated as universal. It is the way I casually said “we did this” speaking as a whole generation, as if “we” are all White, without naming or recognizing the work and experience of people of color. It is the way I talked about a “resurgence” in racism when what I really meant is that even White people who thought they understood are still being shocked to find out that people of color weren’t lying about how bad it’s been, that maybe we as White people weren’t always trying to hear. And let me say this thing: It really sucked to have a bunch of people I respect, whose approval means so much to me, be disappointed and hurt by my work. I’m someone who often likes to make fun of White Fragility, who tells people they need to get over their White people feelings when there is work that needs doing, to focus on impact and not intention. But I’ll be damned if the little pouting White boy inside me wasn’t clawing his way out during this exchange online. I wanted to defend myself, defend a piece I thought was well-written and somewhat powerful and, you guessed it, well-intentioned. I wanted so, so badly to have not made a mistake that it took a lot of effort to let myself be convinced I had. I want so, so badly to be an anti-racist ally to people of color. And when White people swung in to encourage further reflection and make sure that White voices were also present to acknowledge and support the concerns of the people of color, it felt to me like they showed up to dunk on me after the game was already won, gaining points for the White wokeness olympics that surely will be happening any day. But they weren't. I got defensive and thought all the crummy things I could, but they were doing exactly what White allies should be doing, exactly what I have tried to do before. I wanted to stay present in the conversation, but I also felt my fragility and defensiveness at being called out on my writing fighting its way to the surface. I felt sick, felt the seeds of every stupid thing White people say when they get called out, the “this is not how you get allies” or the “maybe I just shouldn’t write anything ever” or “let me explain what I meant by…” I did my best to process all that, let myself feel it, and then remind myself again and again and again, to listen, to apologize, to commit myself to doing better than I had done. And let me say this thing: Any amount of this that I understand well, and any amount that I have put myself out there as an anti-racist teacher, as a White guy trying to do the work, every bit of intelligence I have about the ways that racism operates and perpetuates in schools and society, every bit of it has been due to the real work and labor of people of color. And here are things that are hard to say: I sometimes forget I’m not a leader in this work. I sometimes get showy with how anti-racist I am. I sometimes stop reaching to learn because I get a whole lot of back pats as a White guy who talks at all about race. So, I can stop being careful and start worrying about a cleverly crafted writing piece, and then I can do real harm. But if I am a voice you respect and that you look for to thoughts on anti-racism in teaching, let mine not be the only voice, let it not be one of the loudest. Connect yourself with the women mentioned above (all who read and offered comments on this piece, as if they hadn’t done enough), with the work of Sharif El-Mekki and The Fellowship, of Jose Vilson and all of the leaders and voices at #Educolor, check their resources page and make sure you are reading and watching people of color. These are the voices I have followed, and the voices I have very recently failed. I am sorry. I will work to keep my ego out of the way of the work, to be more careful with my words and my thoughts. I will write to serve the work, and not try to make the work serve my writing. I will do better.
Tom Rademacher (Mr. Rad to his students) is an English teacher in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 2014 he was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year. He teaches writing and writes about teaching on his blog. His book, published by University of Minnesota Press, is called "IT WON’T BE EASY: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching."