Shamari Reid| August 13, 2018
to go back follow the Queen
Overview: In this opinion piece for (white) educators seeking to be culturally relevant and racially literate in the classroom, I speak about the dangers that flow from conceptualizing culturally relevant pedagogy and racial literacy as merely pedagogical tools that can be used without first cultivating a deep love for Black and Brown lives.
Waiting for S̶u̶p̶e̶r̶m̶a̶n̶ Beyoncé
The week was winding down. It was the last session of a professional development workshop series on racial justice in education. We had spent just under five days collectively exploring race, racism, and schooling; and reflecting on what such an exploration of these interrelationships meant for our work as educators. And chile, I was mentally exhausted and had begun counting down the days until I would be in Chicago with Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and my cousin for an early birthday celebration- livin’ my best life and watching the crowd go apes**t! My mind was in some other space with the queen (Bey): a space that existed in a world run by Black women and all was well. But I was ushered back through the doors of my psyche and thrust out toward reality with a comment. A conversation really. Now, I was being nosey, but perhaps, it was meant for me to hear. Intended for me to share. And vital for you to read.
Two of the workshop attendees, both public school teachers, were reflecting on our time together and one of them admitted: “ this has all been great, but like, I don’t know if I’m walking away with enough tools...what am I actually supposed to do on Monday when my kids return?” And the other echoed that sentiment of puzzlement: “me too! I feel like I’ve heard about racial literacy and culturally relevant pedagogy a million times before, but they don’t seem to provide a concrete action plan to be used with my kids. What does this stuff look like in a lesson plan? Can we get some tools?”
And as the Beyoncé song slowly faded out in my mind, there was enough “quiet” for me to lament: Damn, they missed it again. We’ve missed it again. Another professional development workshop on culturally relevant teaching complete, but yet, I remain terrified about what will happen on Monday when these two white teachers return to their under-resourced classrooms, overcrowded with Black and Brown futures, and not have enough “tools” or a concrete enough “action plan” to co-create the optimal learning experience with and for their students. And what about the other classrooms all over the country home to teachers who have just completed similar professional development? Especially because I know that the current landscape of teaching and teacher education, just as many scholars have noted, is still characterized by a majority white teaching force being prepared by an overwhelmingly white teacher education force, despite the fact that our classrooms are becoming more Black and Brown....fuck. Beyoncé, do something! For the Statz.
Now look, I’m not saying that culturally relevant pedagogy and racial literacy aren’t legit. I think they’re dope and they definitely give me hope for the legacies of yesterday's young people, the youth of today, and the beautiful ones yet to come. However, I am saying that I think too often culturally relevant pedagogy and racial literacy are both narrowly interpreted and grossly misconceived as merely “tools” or “action plans”. Where dey do dat at?
I’ve had the privilege of working very closely with Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, a Black queen who uses her work, teaching and life to push for more racial literacy in preservice teacher education programs.
And I could be completely missing the mark, but in working with Queen Sealey-Ruiz I always took racial literacy to refer to this notion of reading the world in a racialized way, unearthing the many ways race contributes to the inequitable systems and unearned privileges present in schools and society writ large, and actively working to dismantle these systems (Sealey-Ruiz, 2011; Sealey-Ruiz & Greene, 2015). I understand racially literate teachers then to have spent time in preservice and inservice spaces:
reading critical texts on and expanding their historical literacy of race and racism and their sticky relationships to power and oppression,
interrogating their beliefs about race and racism,
adopting an anti racist stance,
and engaging in the internal work necessary to analyze how many of the racist biases and perceptions they will work to confront with their students live within them.
For me, the work of developing racial literacy is a journey- a journey that is essential if we genuinely desire to be critical of how our pedagogies and ways of thinking & living produce contradictions that, if left unaddressed, reproduce the very interlocking systems of oppression we are preparing students to dismantle.
So, …..racial literacy doesn’t sound to me like just a tool or an action plan. I’m not sure how neatly it would fit next to “allowing wait time” or “modeling” in a teacher toolkit. It’s an orientation. It’s a lifestyle. A new set of eyes. Racial literacy allows us to see dangers with regard to racial oppression and encourages that we attend to such dangers. Dangers that could, in fact, live within our teaching. Our classrooms. Within us. Racial literacy works to eradicate racism. It endeavours to drive out darkness. And tools cannot drive out darkness, as Martin Luther King Jr. taught us, only light can do that. Only love can do that. I guess, that’s what I’m trying to say: Teachers, tools cannot drive out darkness. Action plans cannot drive out hate or racism, only love can do that. Love for those who do not always look like you. Those who live in ways that are different from yours. Those who do not speak as you do. Love for those who you have been conditioned to regard as inferior. Those whose blood fuels the system(s) that make(s) your realities possible. You can acquire all the pedagogical tools in the world, but if you don’t love your Black and Brown students….if you don’t see their humanity and the systems that threaten it...those tools will do nothing but fool you into believing that you’re “fighting the good fight”, while your Black and Brown students continue to be sacrificed so that their blood may lubricate the machine that is white supremacy. A machine that may continue to produce teachers who do not live as if Black and Brown lives mattered, but do believe that their pedagogy is “culturally relevant”.
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy
So then, what is culturally relevant pedagogy? Is that a tool? Nah, bro. It’s a lifestyle, too (for more on culturally relevant pedagogy see: Gay, 2000; Ladson-Billings, 1995; Paris, 2012). Educators are really out here hanging up posters of Maya Angelou and placing a few books featuring characters from minoritized and marginalized groups around the classroom and calling themselves culturally relevant. But, they have yet to stand up to their co-teacher who too easily and readily refers to their Black and Brown students as animals. They are for real out here remixing the latest rap song to teach multiplication and photosynthesis, but have no lyrics to share when they witness all kinds of racist speech in the teacher’s lounge. C’mon, y’all. But I mean, I guess they are using the “ tools” they wanted to accomplish the items on that “action plan”. Look, The Black Queen- Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings- behind the concept of culturally relevant pedagogy and many other innovations in teacher education once shared in a 2014 article revisiting her theory of culturally relevant teaching:
My work on culturally relevant pedagogy has taken on a life of its own, and what I see in the literature and sometimes in practice is totally unrecognizable to me. What state departments, school districts, and individual teachers are now calling "culturally relevant pedagogy" is often a distortion and corruption of the central ideas I attempted to promulgate. The idea that adding some books about people of color, having a classroom Kwanzaa celebration, or posting "diverse" images makes one "culturally relevant" seem to be what the pedagogy has been reduced to (p.82).
In that same article, Dr. Ladson-Billings went on to speak of the lack of socio-political consciousness in classrooms that were supposedly “culturally relevant”. Need I remind you that culturally relevant pedagogy obliges teachers to develop within the students critical socio-political consciousness to recognize, understand, and critique current and social inequalities and challenge the status quo (Ladson-Billings,1995). But that’s the thing, Dr. Ladson-Billings, in order for them to heed James Baldwin’s (1963) words and invite their Black and Brown students to “become conscious and begin to examine the society in which they are being educated”, they need to love Black and Brown lives. They are all well aware that socio-politically conscious Black & Brown students are a threat to whiteness and white supremacy. Just as we want for our athletes to simply shut up and play, we also prefer if our students just shut up and take the tests.
The L Word
So, white teachers will have to love their Black and Brown students more than their present situations. Educators who subscribe to whiteness will have to love their Black and Brown students more than they love their wealth, privilege, and unrestricted access to opportunities and resources- all made available to them thanks to white supremacy, behind which there is darkness. And tools cannot drive out darkness. Only love can do that. And to be clear, I’m not confusing love with the desire to want to save your Black and Brown students -that ain’t love, it’s wrongfully locating the problem in the students, their families and communities, instead of in the oppressive systems that cement them in subservient positions, uninvite them to wield socio-political power, and relegate them to lead lives within precarious conditions at the margins of society with little or no access to certain spaces, opportunities, and resources.
Black and Brown kids are fine. The system isn’t. So if you must save something to feel like you’re a good person or to pacify your white guilt, maybe you should think about saving education; and rescuing it from the grips of those who have historically enjoyed power and privilege and use it as a weapon against the rest of us.
...as a lifestyle
So again, being racially literate and culturally relevant is a lifestyle. A lifestyle that does not just inform what you do in your classrooms, but who you are outside the classrooms, as well. A lifestyle grounded in so much real love for Black and Brown lives that you will find it impossible to be culturally relevant in the classroom and silent about racial oppression in the streets. You will struggle to refer to yourself as a culturally relevant educator knowing that last night you called the cops on some Black youth because they “looked suspicious”. You will speak up when you see Black women arrive first to businesses and get unacknowledged while workers scurry to assist white women who clearly arrived after. You will find it hard to clutch your purse when a young Black man nears you on the sidewalk. You will think twice before asking if you can touch Black people’s hair-if you ever asked at all. You won’t even dare call our hair bad or unprofessional on Monday and praise a Kardashian for rocking the same hairstyle on Wednesday. You will not be surprised that your Black and Brown students can articulate their ideas nor share with them how well you think they speak. You will not dismiss racism. You will recognize that you aren’t teaching low-income students, at-risk students, or failing students. You aren’t teaching sassy, bossy Black girls or loud and rowdy Black boys. You’re teaching people. You’re working with people. You will love your Black and Brown students. And you will love their ways of being, seeing, and expressing themselves. You will appreciate their swag, and not criminalize it. You will LOVE Black & Brown lives! Then, maybe you’ll see that culturally relevant pedagogy and racial literacy aren’t merely tools, but an invitation to repurpose with love some of the tools (and privileges) you already have to work toward a complete dismantling of the “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” in which we all teach and live (hooks, 2000, p.5). Black Lives Matter. Believe it. Say it. Live it. Teach it.
I’ve gone on way too long, but let me end with a scene I witnessed in a 2nd grade classroom between a Black teacher and a Black student; and a quote from a Latinx student I befriended on the train.
Scene from 2nd grade classroom in Harlem, NY:
A 2nd grade student shared with her teacher that she loved her to which the teacher responded with, “ I love you more”.... My heart smiled.
Anonymous Latinx student from uptown A-train:
Teachers spend too much time learning how to give in the classroom. Give opinions. Directions. Grades. Give feedback. That must be why they can’t receive shit from students. It’s like we ain’t got nothing to contribute. But one thing they didn’t learn how to give was love .
“What’s in your heart will come out in your words and actions.”- Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz
If at this point you are crying, please take a moment to dry your eyes and check out my piece on white tears.
Baldwin, J. (2008). A talk to teachers. Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, 107 (2), 15-20. Original content published in 1963.
Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
hooks, b. (2000). Feminism is for everybody: Passionate politics. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465-491.
Ladson-Billings, G. (2014). Culturally relevant pedagogy 2.0: a.k.a. The remix. Harvard Educational Review, 84 (1), 74-84.
Sealey-Ruiz, Y. (2011). Dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline through racial literacy development in teacher education. Journal of Curriculum & Pedagogy, 8(2), 116-120.
Sealey-Ruiz, Y., & Greene, P. (2015). Popular visual images and the (mis)reading of black male youth: A case for racial literacy in urban preservice teacher education.Teaching Education, 26(1), 55-76.
to go back follow the Queen