Racial Literacy as Student Well-Being
Notes on this reflection:
I am not a mental health professional and my references to “well-being” competencies are based on general skills that support our students’ overall spirit, in the context of our English classroom and campus goals for student well-being.
I am a white woman teaching in a predominantly white school, with the privilege associated with that identity. To use a norm from a wonderful Global Online Learning course I took recently titled “Designing for Equity”: I am a “deliberate amateur” in this work and am learning every day, as well as making mistakes every day.
My teaching journey this year was to create well-being competencies and research if they could be developed, and ultimately assessed, through writing and the study of literature. In a pandemic year of learning online, in-person but masked and socially distanced, in a hybrid model, or in quarantine, student safety and well-being felt more important this year than anything else, and I experimented with framing my freshman English curriculum through the lens of a writing and well-being rubric, which I called “Her Voice at the Table.” I identified resilience, voice, growth mindset, and empathy as well-being competencies that we could explore throughout our study of characters and literature, as well as our own writing process. Of course, these competencies are always part of literature classrooms, but my question was, can they be explicitly taught and assessed?
As we wrap up the school year, I am so proud of my freshmen students and their self-reflection, assessment, and development in these well-being competencies. With this inspiring experience, I am now looking forward and considering our current public conversation and asking myself: What additional well-being competencies do my students need to feel confident in their voice as they step out into the world that is waiting for them? What is the next level for our well-being competency work?
As I meditate on the future of this work, I keep front of mind a beautiful training I took in the fall with The Wells Collective titled “Girls of Color in Girls’ Schools: Joy, Trauma, and Our Responsibility,” in which we were asked to reflect as educators in girls’ schools and consider, among many questions: how are BIPOC girls and women represented within your course curriculum? I have always considered my curriculum as the place where I can contribute to student well-being, so I feel it is time, as a white educator, to go beyond an “incidental approach” to a “sustained and strategic focus” on racial literacy in my curriculum (Borsheim- Black and Sarigianides).
Reflections of the Past
In my first few years teaching all girls, about four to five years ago, I noticed that often when we discussed our texts, whether novels, poetry, or op-eds, the girls often did not say the word “Black” to refer to a character’s race. In fact, they would sometimes go out of their way to avoid identifying a character by race at all. Some of my braver white students would delicately whisper “African-American” when referring to characters in a class discussion, but it appeared to me, via their body language and tone, that they felt it was rude or disrespectful to mention a character’s race. My Black students themselves, perhaps to avoid their own tokenization, also rarely mentioned race or racism in class discussions. All of this felt out of step with what I assumed was a progressive time to discuss race and racism in America. Or was it?
However, what appeared to be a social hesitancy became a significant roadblock to understanding when we explored many of our texts’ themes or character conflicts, such as Walter Lee’s dreams in A Raisin in the Sun, or Esperanza’s audacity to hope in The House on Mango Street. Without stating the historical facts and calling discriminatory housing policies such as restrictive covenants, gentrification, and systemic racism by name, students would be left with gaps in their understanding of our text’s power and truth.
I think, and I will never know for sure, that their hesitancy might have been what was historically my own, which is the belief that it is ok, and often even preferable, for white people to say, “I don’t see color,” and to identify a person by color or race is to make that person (or in our case character) different from the other characters, especially the white ones. And difference, in so much of our American culture, is to be avoided at all costs for its association with rejection (I recognize that assuming the Black characters are the “different” ones in a text is itself problematic). Teenage girls already want to fit in, blend in, support each other, and go out of their way to not “call out” anyone in class, so to identify and discuss the Black identity of a character, and therefore a fellow Black student in a predominantly white classroom, would be to single that student out, make them different, or risk being offensive or worse, hurting them. As I read this last line, I am now aware that this colorblind approach is in itself privileged and misguided.
After much self-reflection I intuitively knew what my students were missing was not the good intent or interest in such discussions, but the language and the understanding of words to engage in conversations, and therefore learning, about race, racism, and social justice. Like me, my white students were not equipped to have classroom conversations about race.
Summer of 2020
After the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, our students were craving the tools to engage in discussions of race, as they were learning and absorbing unfamiliar terminology through the news and of course, social media. My brilliant colleague Rachel Davies created a daily practice of building a community vernacular through explorations of words students hear in public conversations that they hope to define and understand, such as intersectionality, whitewashing, colorism, and microaggression, and has been an inspiration and guide to me in my thinking of the connection between language and difficult conversations. Seeing how her community vernacular helped students overcome their fear also inspired me to see anti-racism work as strengthening our students’ rhetoric, and therefore, their voice, which is one of our well-being competencies.
One of my students recently wrote an essay titled “Seeing Color: White People Following Black Leaders in the Fight for Equality” and commented that, “The phrase ‘I don’t see color’ is effectively the nuke button on any conversation about race.” The imagery of a “nuke button” on conversations struck me as significant; how often is language the “nuke button,” whether intentionally or not, in conversations the students want to have about racism? And is there a way that we as English teachers can develop essential questions, standards, and competencies in our curriculum to explicitly teach and assess having difficult conversations about racism? For example, under the guidance of Letting Go of Literary Whiteness: Antiracist Literature Instruction for White Students, I am considering course essential questions such as:
How can students demonstrate the extent to which they know and can apply key race concepts?
How can students demonstrate their racial literacy training?
How can students reflect on their own identity and how their identity relates to and impacts others?
The Path Forward
As Rachel says in Community Vernacular: Healing Fear Through Language: “In the end, it was my students who inspired me most and helped me begin this journey of words: they are so brave about learning, risking, and growing, as long as they understand the reasons and the process.”
So now I am at my own crossroads of research, curiosity, uncertainty, fear, and bravery, and I feel I need to be all these things as I ask the question:
Can racial literacy be a well-being competency for writing and literature students?
English teachers know that there is no better way to explore conflicts of humanity than through reading and discussing literature. And if our goal is to nurture strong students, both white students and students of color, with voice, empathy, a growth mindset, and resiliency, can learning how to speak about racism support white students by giving them the confidence, humility, and toolkit to have difficult conversations that must be had, and support students of color by signaling to them that they are seen, heard, represented, and included? And if so, is this also wellness work?
The alternative might be silence, misunderstanding, harm, or fear.
In his 1963 speech “A Talk to Teachers,” James Baldwin said: “The paradox of education is precisely this--that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity.”
Through exploring anti-racism and racial literacy competencies as part of well-being work, our goal is to give our students the tools, the experience, and the language to ask questions of the universe, and hopefully, live with the questions as they advocate for change.
Kate Schenck is a collector of pigments and spices, dreamer, and builder of tables for lesser heard voices.
Borsheim-Black, Carlin and Sophia Tatiana Sarigianides. Letting Go of Literary Whiteness: Antiracist Literature Instruction for White Students. Teachers College Press, 2019.