James Baldwin

Writing Yourself Right Out Of The Burning House

Jose Vilson Jose Leave a Comment

“Dear Self (& other writers)–If you’re not writing with the urgency of exile, what’s the point? Which is to say, your writing should convey so much immediacy, fire and risk that you chance being kicked out of something with each line.

Your writing should make you fucking quake.”

– Airea D. Matthews

Kelly Wickham shared this quote with her friends recently and also commented that she thought about my recent post about … well, about life as an educator of color writing about education. I must have pored over that post for four hours before hitting “Publish” because, as usual, people might take it the wrong way. The e-mails and comments came almost immediately, many supportive, while a couple made me roll my eyes.

Even to this day, with the volume of educators of color writing about their experiences, it’s no match for the understanding that folks of color as a whole have to do things twice as well and work twice as hard to achieve any semblance of success.

We’re not just working against the visual description of what education leaders should look like, no matter what “camp” of education you come from, whether that be ed-tech, education activism, or education reform. We’re working against redlining and gerrymandering, which disadvantages schools where teachers of color often work (and lose their jobs from). We’re working against stereotype and assumption, as if race is the only value we bring to a discussion, even when we clearly jump the hurdle for content and pedagogy.

And, for once, when we do want to have the race conversation, at a time when it’s finally en vogue to do so, and we’ve created some vehicles for having that discussion, teachers of color don’t necessarily want white educators to come in and ask, “Am I cool to come in?” It’s not because we’re unwelcoming per se. To make the analogy to hip-hop, some folks come into a conversation like the Beastie Boys and some like Iggy Azalea. The Beastie Boys come into rap and create their own lane without acting like hip-hop was theirs to own. Iggy, on the other hand, appropriates rap as a means to success and chides those who call her out on it.

Similarly, when I used the names I did in my last post, I didn’t expect that the dominant feedback to be “I didn’t know this about manual retweeting.”

Umm, it wasn’t about that. It was the idea that, when we come into a conversation in which we are privileged, how do we amplify those doing the work, whatever work it is? Manual retweeting isn’t some cardinal sin of social media, but, compounded with other elements, can make it look to others like you’re making yourself (yes you) the center and architect of the conversation. The thrust of the last post was the idea that we need to closely consider the perspective of others and put forth the ideas of those most marginalized by this country.

Why would I, for example, make myself look like I know everything about feminism and then not actually have conversations with women about their views AND listen intently for how I can help? Does the space I occupy need to be at that center or should I defer to the women I know who are experts at this lived experience?

Right.

If your hustle is based on making sure everyone sees only your face and your posts heavily extrapolate from the work of others, I don’t know what to tell you. It just seems to people (from many walks of life, mind you) that if your best effort as an influential person is to make yourself, your feelings, and your thoughts the only ones that matter, that’s not a real relationship. This has even worse implications across race and gender lines because of the heightened conversations over the last decade about women writers and writers of color trying to gain access that seems rather easy for white men to hop into at will. When so many of us have to go unpaid for an “opportunity” or have to feel privileged when so-and-so name dropped us (or else), that’s not real to me or anyone else seeing what I’m seeing.

Issues of race, gender, and class aren’t some “special” you do if you’re sincere about true diversity. These things have implications in all the work we do.

But you’re mad I name dropped. Fine. I don’t apologize, though. If anything, I hope it makes you boiling mad so you can have that conversation out in the open. The mechanisms so many of us have to operate under just to do the work we do still exist. If you’re one of those mechanisms, just stop.

I’m not integrating into a burning house.

photo c/o

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Leave a Reply