My Saturday originally was going to feature me sleeping in, hanging out with my dog, starting the third season of The Great British Baking Show, and most importantly, a visit to the grand re-opening of my favorite bookstore.
Instead, I went to our school’s equity team retreat and my suit of armor is now dented beyond belief.
Our school’s equity team started three years ago, and it hasn’t really done anything. Just when we think we’re going somewhere, the administrators on the team freak out about the possibility of parent push back, and there is no forward movement.
The retreat, stupidly, was my idea. I went to my principal, a Vanilla Latte, and asked what we could do to help move us forward.
“Maybe we just aren’t comfortable enough with each other,” he had said. “Maybe we just need a day to really dig deep and figure out where we are.”
Sounds innocuous enough, right? After three years, surely we were somewhere near the same page.
Turns out we’re not even reading the same goddamn book.
Our facilitator (the same white guy that holds my dream job at the moment but doesn’t know it) asked us to break into affinity groups and write down three things:
- What we would like our roles and responsibilities to be in our building
- What the challenges are that get in the way of that
- Requests and needs of the group for the other groups
Thankfully, the other two members of the group that are teachers of color had decided to come that day, and we got to work. We wrote down that we didn’t want to be the hand holders to the white people, and that we’d like more support.
When we reconvened, we went first out of the three groups. The other two were made up of the white men, and the white women.
After we read our list, there were no questions or remarks made. Just uncomfortable nods.
Then, it was the white women’s group’s turn. Of the three ladies, I really enjoy two of them. The third was my Uber Vanilla Latte VP, and she had looked like she would rather be roasted over a spit than be at this meeting. I felt like whatever would come out would have been tempered by the these two colleagues of mine.
Oh, I was wrong. There was no way I could have braced my armor for this hit:
“First of all, we’d like to be acknowledged for the work we’ve done, because sometimes, we feel like it is not enough. So, acknowledgement would be nice. Next, we want to be respected more for where we are in our journey, and for people of color to be okay with the pace of our journeys.”
I glanced at the other two members of my affinity group, and was relieved to see that they looked as flabbergasted as I felt.
A million retorts flew through my mind, but were interrupted by one of the other Mocha teachers. Leaning forward in her chair, and closing her eyes as if waiting for a blow, she asked, “Can…can you elaborate what you mean by ‘acknowledgement’?”
The white women’s group shifted in their chairs, and I thought, for a nanosecond that they were replaying what they had just said in their minds, and their minds were going, “Oh wow that was a fucked up thing to say!”
Instead, this happened: “Well, we’ll give you analogy instead. Let’s say that we are all learning to play guitar, and some people are just really good guitarists. Like, they are master guitarists. It’s not fair that the people who are just learning never get credit for the small steps they are taking to get better at the guitar.”
Now, this may seem like a fairly decent analogy. As a language arts teacher, I love using analogies to help make things clearer for my students. But let me tell you how much this analogy actually sucks and comes from an incredibly privileged point of view.
- It assumes that we all started playing the guitar at the same time. That is to say, that we are all equal in this situation. If this were a realistic analogy, we would understand that some of us have been forced to play the stupid guitar every hour of every day, because if we don’t, we don’t survive. For other people, they can pick up the guitar and dink around with a pick for a few minutes. Then, they have the privilege of putting it down. Their lives are absolutely not affected by whether or not they are good at playing, or whether they play at all.
- There is the assumption that we, as “Master Guitarists,” should hold back and teach the others how to play, and applaud them for every chord they learn, or string they strum. This, effectively, is asking people of color to hold off on what they might want to do, or in this case, what song they may want to play, in order to not make the beginning guitarists feel bad.
- Our lives and experiences as people of color were compared to a hobby. As if collecting racist comments, ignorant questions, and defending ourselves against stereotypes is akin to collecting stamps. We don’t get to stop. We don’t get to pick another hobby if this one gets old. When we are exhausted, we keep playing.
After that horrendous analogy came an example, straight from our lovely Uber V.L. VP. She said that she and the principal had spent “hours upon hours,” learning how to memorize all the students’ names for our 8th grade “graduation.” She said, “I’m not even saying that I want recognition for that, but I do want to say that moments like that go unrecognized.”
Translation: I waited until June of the these students’ third year in my school to learn their names. I still want a gold star for it, though, because I didn’t have to do it at all.
Are you freaking kidding me? I have been on this equity team for three years, and this was what I was getting? Had we suddenly time-warped back to our very first meeting?
After that fresh hell was over, we were asked to go debrief each others’ requests with our affinity groups. Going back to my fellow Mocha teachers was like being allowed to rise up to the surface for air. We sat in silence for a bit, each in shock at what had just happened. Then Beyonce, (not her real name, but we were all channeling our inner Queen Bey to keep from crying) a colleague of mine said, “Well, that was horseshit. Guitars? As if they’d ever let us play the guitar in the band. We’re the sound guy in the back.” We laughed heartily at first, and then realized the gravity of what she’d said. Even the instrument in their analogy had been coming from a place of privilege. The lead guitar is just that: in the lead. To assume that people of color have been ahead in any way is to not fully comprehend this crappy system of institutionalized racism in the first place.
Sigh. The rest of the afternoon did not go much better, but at least we made it through. My disappointment lasted all weekend. I would catch myself tying my shoes, and thinking, “what the hell happened yesterday? Acknowledgement?”
I can’t let this level of ignorance slide. When you’re a Mocha, there are just battles that are not worth denting your armor over. But this one is asking for an entire Mocha cavalry charge. And yet, there’s just three of us. When I reached out to them, the general response sounded like, “Don’t even try. They don’t get it.”
But I need to try. I need to try because while those comments said aloud gave our armor a good bashing, it’s the thinking that that sentiment is in any way right that worries me. I can’t have the leaders of our school walking around thinking that they deserve something for not being completely obtuse all of the time. Does that thinking extend to our students? Like, do they get a name right in June and expect applause before that student even walks across the stage? Do they go home and think that getting names more or less right is enough?
I called our facilitator today and hashed it out with him. Given the power differences, and our rather shaky personal history, I was worried about the potential professional repercussions if I was to raise my issues with the guitar crap to my VP. Thankfully, the facilitator said, “Let me take this one. You take on the other teacher in the group, and I’ll take on the VP. Tag me on this one.”
“Consider yourself tagged,” I replied (still wanting his job).
And with that final strum of the guitar, I have a plan, and I can leave the stage. Until tomorrow, anyway.