Slaying the four dragons of racism

By Ron Hustvedt, Jr.

Here’s my Wednesday reflection for the #NNSTOYEquity21 Challenge, sponsored by the Equity Taskforce of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. The first portion was to read the four levels of racism created by Race Forward. According to their website, raceforward.org is all about, “Race Forward Research conducts cutting edge, original and broadly accessible research on pressing racial justice issues focused on the significance of race to social and economic outcomes in our society. Race Forward Research seeks to provide evidence of the entrenched and systemic barriers to racial justice.” I thought the Four Levels of Racism document was very succinct and neatly defined the four levels (internalized, interpersonal, institutional and structural) but I wondered if it was “too neat” in the lack of details and context. It is clear that this is intended as an introductory document meant to be used during a training and the reflection questions definitely would provoke some good conversations with a group new to this work. My favorite question, and one I plan on putting to use, was, “Rabbi Tarfon, said “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either. What does that mean for you and your organization as it relates to racism? Other forms of oppression?”

The next item for today was a video by Act.Tv on their youtube channel. It was an animated explainer titled, “Systemic Racism Explained.” On one hand I appreciated how it did a good job simplifying the complexities of systemic racism, but on the other hand I felt that it was a tad too simplistic. I worry about how it would be viewed in a classroom of students, especially one where there was only a handful of BIPOC students. A teacher would definitely want to process this video with students immediately after showing it and make time to process a day or two later. I wonder who the target age group is for this one. If you teach young children, and feel well informed on the causes/impacts of systemic racism, I’d say this could be a good one. If you are new to it, and can’t find anything else, brush up on your adult reading/learning first then share it with kids. It’s necessary to educate ourselves and our kids, but we have to make sure we are considerate in our approaches so we don’t derail our own efforts.

The final reading for the day was an article in learningforjustice.org (formerly known as Teaching Tolerance) called, “The Weaponization of Whiteness in Schools.” This was on my reading list anyways as a friend tweeted it out last week and I remember seeing it in the fall when it was first published. I’ll have to admit that reading it was not an easy task. In a majority white profession, I have seen this happen on a regular basis. Identifying it, calling it out, helping people acknowledge it, has been a task I have worked on for many years. It’s something I’ve tried to get others to learn about, but it’s also something I have uneasily noticed in my own practice. It’s not like I’ve done it on purpose. But somehow I just knew to do it. It’s hard to explain, and I’m really just trying to encourage you to read the article, but it gave me an uneasy feeling reading it and reminding myself of those times when I’ve caught myself about to “weaponize my whiteness.” It’s tough not to feel personally offended when a student disrupts or acts out, and it’s a very difficult realization to catch implicit biases bubbling up, but it’s something that you can reconcile with, add a filter to your brain in catching, and even if it gets past that be willing to call it out yourself and reconcile.

A powerful quote that spoke to me came from Alicia Oglesby, a Black high school counselor and co-author of Interrupting Racism: Equity and Social Justice in School Counseling, who said, “When students, who are children behaving as children do, are off task or causing me a disruption, my initial response is to adjust how I’m facilitating that student or the larger class. In real time, I’m assessing that student’s needs because they precede mine. My lesson is never more important than that of the students’ need for education. The classroom and school experience allows for education to happen.” While I’d like to think I’ve caught every misstep I’ve made over the years, I’d be naive to believe that. I acknowledge that I’m more tuned into it, more adept at identifying it, and also becoming good at calling it out. I’m ashamed of every word I’ve written about this article because it’s not what I’d like to admit, but I feel it’s important to own it and acknowledge the pervasiveness of it all.

Circling back to the first source of the day, we can believe that racism doesn’t exist within us, but we are products of our society. Even though I’m an inner-city kid who grew up playing with and going to the houses of a lot of friends from multiple cultures and races, I was also exposed to all the images thrown at me in various forms of media. I believe that if you want to be antiracist you need to go after all four levels of it: internalized, interpersonal, institutional and structural. Publicly, I find myself going after the institutional and structural varieties. Those are the giant dragons to slay and commit to doing so with an ever-growing fleet of allies. But then implicit biases catch you with a right hook and remind you that internalized and interpersonal are always lurking in the subconscious. Exorcising takes time and I’m not convinced full removal is every possible. It’s treatable, but not removable. The four levels of racism are all interconnected, so we must slay the inner dragons with as much intention and ferocity as the outer ones, and go after them all in a public way.

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