Open Response to Dr. Ares on White Educators and Allies’ Responsibilities

In response to Emanuel AME Church Massacre Requires a Response – White Educators and Allies’ Responsibilities by Nancy Ares, published on June 23, 2015.

Dear Dr. Ares,

Thank you for asking for my feedback on the tragic and racially motivated killings in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina. The tone of your blog and how you framed the issues within the historical, educational, and social context of American life is heartfelt, critically aware, introspective, and self-reflective. I applaud your courage for being so direct, truthful, and comprehensive in your social commentary. As a white researcher and academic, your honesty and introspection are needed, to not only spark an honest debate on race, racism, and white privilege, but equally important, to challenge all educators to see that it is their social responsibility to engage their students, of all levels, in dialogue on the issues and problems that we face as people of diverse races, ethnicities, and socio-economic groups. We need a level of dialogue that would allow all students and people to come to a deeper understanding of our connectedness as humans, and of the things that divides us and prevent us from learning from, appreciating, and engaging on meaningful levels with all people. If our common humanity and connectedness are not affirmed in our dealings with “the other,” we would be harmed and suffer from the unfortunate actions of people, be they black, brown or white who are experiencing existential difficulties.

As a Caribbean woman who immigrated to the United States at the age of thirty one, who became a naturalized citizen, and who moved through the American higher education system, from Brooklyn College, to Columbia University, and to the University of Rochester, I find myself becoming a critical observer of the American society and educational system. As a black woman who worked as an educator in her native country, St Kitts-Nevis, for eleven years, I was painfully aware of the insidious and corrosive nature of racism in America, even though I was not mired in its painful effects. However, as a black student and as a college instructor, I, too, was touched by its reach, and not having lived within its stifling and paralyzing atmosphere, I am able to “insulate” myself from its crippling power, even as I try to understand the crippling and limiting effects it has on my African American brothers and sisters, many white colleagues, and on my students of all races, especially my African American students.

When I teach classes on diversity and race, politics, and world literature, I choose close textual reading, and I use in-depth discussions to get my students to engage with issues of race and racism, as explored by writers such as Martin Luther King, Gloria Naylor, Brent Staples, William Raspberry, James Baldwin, Frantz Fanon, Chinua Achebe, and others. As a person who did not grow up immersed in the effects of racism and prejudice, I found that I was able to adopt an objective stance, a contemplative distance, that allowed my students and I to push the envelope in a constructive, safe, and meaningful way. My classes are always diverse with a “critical mass” of white American and European students, black (American, African, and Caribbean), Asian, and Middle Eastern students. Sure, there were times when the white students were defensive and said that it was time to “get over” and bury the racial issues rooted in the past. The black students felt that white society’s inability to acknowledge past wrongs were deeply entrenched, painful, and a barrier to social justice. But, in the end they acknowledged that the discussions and the readings were cathartic, transformative, and humanizing. By reading their reflective essays, I could see the shifts in their thinking as they engaged emotionally and intellectually with the writers.

Like you, I have been troubled by the deficit models used as lens to explain the difficulties of the Black family in America, as well as the educational difficulties of black and brown students in American schools. As a Caribbean American, I am often puzzled by the lack of self-efficacy and self-assertion exhibited by many of my African American students. And there have been times when because of where I am from, some black students do not identify with me or allow themselves to see the connection that would allow me to be their mentor. Still, I did need not give up on them, nor refrain from encouraging them to strive to realize their potential. As a black woman who received her early education under the British system and within the context of colonization and the local Caribbean experience, I was able to see education and self-development as a human right and not as social indoctrination, social engineering, or social reproduction even within the effects of colonization because my teachers were fellow villagers who took seriously their role of educating the young. Many African American children do not have the “village” connection with their teachers and cannot reconcile that disconnection to come to see that all knowledge and experiences can and should be critically engaged with, so that education and the exposure to white writers or the ideas of the “other”, and the absence of the black voice, experience or contributions do not become a threat to the self. As you have observed, White America has failed to see the depth of black and brown people’s funds of knowledge, their intelligence, and their contributions to humanity. It is so easy to drink from the intoxicating well of ethnocentrism and lose sight of the complexity of the human experience and one’s place in the diversity of life.

Self-awareness is crucial to the examination of experiences, whether white or black. In our engagement with knowledge and information, we must always strive for personal transformation, not reproduction. Students at all levels of the educational system must be led to question assumptions, suppositions, arguments, claims, information, and ideologies. Students must learn to identify fallacies, illogical thinking, to see hidden agendas, and manipulations. Students must be able to see the contingent nature of life, to understand plurality, relativism, and what constitute logical thinking, in order to move beyond dualistic thinking. Sadly, I do not think that the educational system is facilitating the thinking that would allow all students to deal with and appreciate the complexities of a heterogeneous society and world.

From my experience, the majority of students of all races want to have a deeper and more clarifying experience in education. They want to grapple with the difficult issues, the ideologies and beliefs and come to a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. They value the opportunities to see subjects, as inquiries into the human experience, to face difficult truths, and in doing so, to understand themselves and “the other” in the process. Students of all races, I believe, are reaching for a more liberating experience that a transformative education can bring. And as educators we have to have the moral courage to help young people of all races, religion, and socioeconomic levels, to see that it is only through an education that is centered in open dialogue that all people could see their common humanity and strive together to deal with our human nature and the human condition, all of which are difficult and complex experiences.

Like you, I believe that as an academic, I have an opportunity and a responsibility to work for social change. I agree with you that education is the key to effectuate change. If the young, white man who killed the nine black people in the AME church had a deeper understanding of the historical events that gave rise to Rhodesia, apartheid South Africa, and America, he would have understood that his ideas, conceptions, and assumptions were wrong and that Blacks have as much of a right, as Whites, to be Americans, to strive, to participate, to govern, and to belong to America.