The Race Discourse (So Hopefully You Won’t Have To Go Through That)

Jose Vilson Jose, Race

I wanted to write this piece as a bit of a year in review, but, in light of so many recent events, I prefer to let these cats out of their collective bag now. It seems, in the last few years, I’ve developed a reputation for having hard discussions with folk who have lost touch with other people’s humanity. Just last week, someone accosted Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis and me over her Ivy League, National Board Certified, double-mastered credentials. After asking questions and presenting facts in a professional manner, and getting little out of the other person besides ed reform talking points and ad hominems, I wished him well as it was a school night, and Lord knows papers matter more than a stranger who won’t Google what he’s saying to me.

Then he called me a pu … well. You can figure it out for yourself.

It was odd because, up to then, I thought we engaged in a way that wouldn’t warrant misogynist name-calling, but, really, I was waiting for that moment. Most of us who fight for social justice, especially those of us who have to consistently defend our humanity, have moments like this where you want to know and don’t want to know whether someone’s true intention is disagreement or dehumanization. On the one end, after about 45 minutes, I got the point that he disagreed and should have discontinued, but on the other, perhaps it mattered to know that my dialogue with him didn’t just come from looking at my points, but looking at my face, my skin, my person. It’s important for my education folk to see that, for some of us, this is how dialogue always goes because we can’t just have a conversation.

Race isn’t injected into the conversation. It’s already there, splayed just below an tin-foil surface.

Then again, it’s been this way all year for me and others, from people on all sides of the education debate. For instance, if someone would have told me that the presidents of our national teachers unions and the most popular education researcher would have written statements on #BlackLivesMatter and the ramping up of police brutality against people of color, I would have been shocked (SHOCKED!) because race doesn’t fit into the anti-testing narrative except in the form of “BLACK AND BROWN KIDS ARE SUFFERING BECAUSE WE SAID SO!!!”.

For years, some of us have pleaded with people of all backgrounds to reflect on the ways in which race, class, and gender work within our educational dialogue, mostly ignored or deflected. Saying such things at a large anti-testing conference this year, for example, earned me an epic finger-wag from an audience member who thought it best to lecture me on why the Tea Party wasn’t inhuman (even though that’s not what I said), a few gigabytes-worth of e-mails and calls from white people telling people of color why people of color seeking justice should just shut up and get under the anti-testing umbrella, and a slew of folks rationalizing why the disintegration (in many senses of the word) of the Black teaching corps over the last century in our country was an OK thing.

And, before this month, even with their endorsement of my book on the same subject, I still thought they acquiesced too often to the whims of folks who wish things should be exactly as they were, back when I couldn’t walk on sidewalks and the like.

On one end, you have the curious case of Campbell Brown and the Black-led NYC Parents Union suing (and then not suing?) New York State to reduce, if not eliminate, tenure. Eventually, Campbell Brown bullies the parents union around, and some of us progressives go “I told you so.” On another end, the Badass Teachers Association calls up a newly inducted president of the largest teachers union and almost get one of her employees fired for an online disagreement, a phone call with racial undertones if I ever saw / heard one. (This happens to be typical operating procedure against folks of color we don’t like who work in organizations we do like and can influence.)

For political reasons, leaders at the time decided to show solidarity with people who would otherwise have people of color erased because 53,000 seems like a lot more than 40. In other words, no one says a thing. It’s cool. Because it didn’t happen to a prominent edu-activist. Until we shut social media and whole assemblies down.

On another, ed-techers and the EduHappy Citizens Brigade deemed race talk inappropriate in forum after forum after forum. Same song, different awards, different lists, different ed-camps, different and familiar faces, different rationals. Same song.

So when do you want to talk about race? When Romans of color catch a whiff of smoke or when the Colosseum’s pillars crumble from the heat? Not sure.

But don’t let me and my confidants say that. Because everyone is a race expert now. Everyone follows the Ferguson / NYC protestors now. Everyone makes sure they have multiple friends of color and keep a colored face on speed dial to deflect whatever complicity they’ve felt or not felt in the mess we call 2014. Now everyone wants to say Teach for America is wrong / right for having had 25% of its latest recruitment class be new teachers of color. Now everyone writes petitions and gets arrested for Black lives. Now every organization has a few people of color in leadership, leaving no stone unturned. Everyone read Invisible Man and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings now. Every white teacher is doing the empathy and listening thing and getting published in the Washington Post for it now. Every person who’s ever said or done something racist and out of line has an apology via blog post. Everyone has a pulse on what people of color think, and privilege and Martin Luther King Jr. have been adopted into every well-meaning somebody’s zeitgeist now. Now.

Everyone wants to win the race race. Now. Not back when it mattered. Now, when the media deemed it necessary and seats become available on MSNBC, not when some of us pleaded with you to make things right.

All of this is amazing because, yes, it also means that even people I truly care about have to look at themselves and the roles they play in the cultural consciousness of our schools. Some teachers in Queens still think it was cool to wear NYPD t-shirts when I rarely see such shows of solidarity afforded to teachers, because folks secretly want to spite United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew. For marching for Eric Garner and not actually against police at a time when social justice caucuses couldn’t agree on the definition of social justice.

Every moment I take a breath, I’m reminded that some of the folks who believed in Daniel Pantaleo think it OK to steal students’ air supply daily.

So am I happy that some of us have helped move the dialogue to include race, not in the periphery, but as an essential part of the work we do? Absolutely. Yet, that conversation left a bitter taste in our mouths, the reminder that, as far as we’ve come, we still have a long way to go, especially in education, where many of us prefer the nice and the benign, pretending empathy while hugging ignorance amongst us so tightly. It’s also why the methods some of us have employed in having conversations with our most prominent leaders on all sides of this debate has been necessary. In many instances, it’s changed our lives in many ways, afflicted us at work or in our activism work, left us off lists, and might have left us scared for our personal spaces.

Even as more folk gather around empathy, it’s sadly and ultimately up to us too often to explain why race matters. Because who else calls colleagues in and out whenever these issues come up? Sabrina. Xian. Melinda. Jason. Kenzo. Audrey. Chris. Bill. Rafranz. Martha. Both Mikes. Stephanie. EduColor and true allies.

Me.

In 2014, we did that so hopefully you won’t have to go through that.