It seems that people don’t realize how much the stuff we read and watch shapes the way we see the world and the people in it, ourselves included. Nic Stone, Don’t Just Read About Racism—Read Stories About Black People Living
To clarify my thinking about the word act, let me refer you to an opinion piece from the Washington Post entitled "When Black People are in Pain White People Join Book Clubs." It made me know that the time for just learning about racism and white privilege is not enough. We cannot assume that making the lists and requiring the reading is a sufficiently actionable response to systemic racism. We have to read, watch, listen, and then confront racism wherever it exists. I have had moments during which I learned that my white privilege permitted me never to have to think about race. They were always my go-to impact experiences when we would have discussions as a faculty, and I felt good about the fact that I could recognize these moments. But did they change me enough to act?
While working at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, I did learn about ways that dominant cultures and their governments dehumanize people they fear or want to subjugate. The Indian Boarding Schools stripped American Indian Children of every familial and cultural connection with the heinous motto "Kill the Indian save the child." Children upon arrival at the schools were forbidden to speak their language, wear their hair in the way of their tribal culture, stripped of their clothing, and made to wear uniforms that took away tribal and thus family identity. I have been one of the people who asked about the use of Apache, a proud culture, as a modifier for our cherished relay race tradition, and have tried to get #ownvoices books into the hands of influential teachers. Looking back now, I realize there were other places where I should have challenged Native American stereotyping. But this last month has made me know that when I see stereotypes that objectify I have a responsibility to act not just inform.
Having just read Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped: Racism Antiracism and You and coming to grips with the truth that racism was ingrained in all of the founding documents by white founding fathers who wanted to protect a system of slavery that dehumanized a race of people encoding it in perpetuity, I had a second awakening. The idea that institutions are and must be complicit and have perpetuated systemic racism in this country has never been made so transparent to me. Otherwise, how could it be part of the system? I have always admired the intellect and foresight of the creators of these documents, but through the prism of racist intent, these founders were responsible for the indemnification of the dehumanization of Black people in this country. So how you ask will I confront this? How do I own my responsibility to act and inform?
I recently watched "When They See Us" on Netflix the powerful docudrama produced by Ava DuVernay about the five young Black men, ages 12 to 16, who were falsely accused and convicted of raping a white woman in the Central Park Jogger case in 1989. These men were later exonerated in 2002 of all charges when the perpetrator was arrested, confessed and DNA proved their innocence. As I was watching these boys being interrogated by white police detectives without the benefit of legal counsel or their parents and forced to confess to crimes they didn't commit spurred on by two white prosecuting attorneys, I had to turn away. How fortunate, that I could turn away from these scenes that made me upset, frustrated, angry. It was the lived experience of these men and their families who were essentially "imprisoned" along with them. They could not turn away from the justice system that failed them as part of this indemnified racism. What can I do to take action about injustices such as these? If you watch this you should also watch Oprah Winfrey's When They See Us Now, an interview with the young actors and the men who were exonerated of this crime.
Have you noticed that all of my moments of reckoning have been recent? I know I encountered books, documentaries, and more throughout my adult life that gave me pause and moved me incrementally toward what I thought was a true antiracist stance. Now as I read, watch, and listen, I can parse out the dominant white culture influence that changes or dilutes the narrative of Black lives. I can also hear the voices that I didn't always hear before. I first heard KC Boyd on a podcast called School Librarians United. She is a brilliant African American Librarian/ Director of Library Services and a school librarian in Washington D.C. and advocates for her students recognizing the economic disparities that affect the majority of her students in the public school system.
As I learned more about KC Boyd, I started following her on Twitter @Boss_Librarian and was most affected by her AASL Office Hours episode about the microaggressions she has experienced as a Black librarian, not only from library patrons but from white members of a predominantly white female profession. I heard her say that as a person with three master's degrees, administrative experience, and an advocate for #ownvoices, she resents being called upon only during these times of unrest to develop lists of books or be the face of the race when advising white librarians about next steps. KC Boyd spoke of microaggressions she experienced at professional conferences when she had been invited to be a presenter or a keynote speaker. She challenged the AASL to see themselves as unwelcoming in these instances to librarians of color. This was powerful. Even the moderator of the "Office Hours" episode becomes noticeably uncomfortable during the Q&A at the end as KC clearly states it is not up to black people to be the ones to educate white people on what their actions should be in the face of racism. She is one of my new personal heroes. I feel humbled by her journey in a profession I've always considered forward-thinking.
With our blog posts and interactions with teachers and students, I think we need to challenge implicit and explicit racism in our community and the world. I think "to act" has become imperative, and what we really want people who read our posts or come to us for booklists to do is have their own awakening to systemic racism and white privilege and then take action to challenge and become disrupters of the status quo. As I said recently to a colleague, the time to intellectualize our response to racism has to be over. Now.