Two weekends ago I participated in the Race Institute led by Ali Michael and Frederick Bryant. I have arranged for and participated in professional development on racism before, but in the most essential ways, nothing prepared me for this personal encounter with my own experiences with race – which turned out to be my own racism. On the final day of the institute we worked with the others in our group to develop strategies for engaging in anti-racist work individually and collectively in our schools.
Unlike most workshops and conferences, this one was focused on self-understanding: understanding ourselves as products of a racist society. We began by looking at our own early messages about race, the messages – spoken and unspoken – we took in from our family, churches, schools, and neighborhoods. For myself, the messages were powerful and confusing. I grew up a beloved member of a large Presbyterian church that had decided to stay in the city at a time when other churches had followed their white members out to the suburbs. Every Sunday we drove 43 city blocks from our home to church. While the majority of the members were white, the neighborhood was black. My church provided a vibrant athletic recreation program, day care, food pantry and other services in the neighborhood, but the people who lived where I worshiped were strangers to me. Most of the people with whom I worshiped on Sunday, and who were in my youth fellowship groups, choirs, and church social events, were from outside of the neighborhood. My father used personal funds to help black leaders in Indianapolis found a bank focused on serving the black community, and yet my parents’ circle of friends was entirely white. I lived in an integrated school district that included white neighborhoods and black neighborhoods, but I attended a private school with only two black classmates until I went to our public high school in tenth grade. My high school was about 30% students of color. I had black classmates in all of my classes, but my friends were all white. My family employed a loving black woman and a kind black man to do housekeeping and yard work. I called them Julia and George. They were the only adults I addressed by their first names. Two of my most memorable and important-to-me teachers in high school were black. As I shared in the Race Institute, Mr. Carey, my choir teacher for three years, dispelled my own childhood belief that black men left their wives to raise their families alone. Here was this dignified, cultured man who knew more about music than anyone I had ever met, who was married with two children and the respect of his colleagues. He was always Mr. Carey and we never doubted that he deserved our absolute respect and unquestioned trust. These were only a few of the overwhelming memories, some old and some new, that I began to see in a new lens: the lens of American racial history and its impact on my formation.
In the Race Institute that weekend, younger members of our group were deeply saddened as they realized how they had hurt their black students. In my reading, work with colleagues, and engagement in the episodic and more recently sustained work we have done as a school around understanding racism, I have experienced this same deep grief that came from realizing the harm I had done to specific students I had worked with through my twenty year career. I could hold my younger co-participants’ pain, but pain wasn’t my strongest emotion. Confusion was. As I shared in our white affinity group on Saturday, the institute’s focus on the individual looking at themselves so intently was confusing and dislocating to me. Considering where I was in my own identity development was a part of this dislocation. I was raised to care for and consider others. My work is focused on helping others serve our students to the best of their ability. As an administrator I can be so focused on the many details needing my attention that I lose myself in the process. Even writing this paragraph with so many first person pronouns is grating. My ability to do my work comes from an awareness of being centered, calm, and attending to the person in front of me. My sense of calling to my work remains, but now I am de-centered, I am this middle aged, white woman trying to understand the impact on me of Julia, George, Mr. Carey, Madame Rodman and my own students, to name just a few. This weekend knocked me off my center in more ways than one. My task now is to explore my own questions from these disturbances in my version of myself and my work. If Julia’s and George’s great grand children are at Westtown, are teachers prepared to recognize and nourish them? If Mr. Carey’s grandson arrives to teach music at Westtown, how will we receive his teaching?