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.

Emanuel AME Church Massacre Requires a Response – White Educators and Allies’ Responsibilities

In this photo taken June 19, 2015, photos of the victims of the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., are held during a vigil at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington.
In this photo taken June 19, 2015, photos of the victims of the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., are held during a vigil at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington. Source:

In the face of the tragedy at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, another in a too-long line of such racially based attacks, what can we do? Tragedies like these have me question the value of my work at Warner, and force me to evaluate where I am and what I am doing. As an education researcher and a member of the faculty, I know I have responsibility to respond to events like the terrorist attack in Charleston, SC. We know a lot about racism (and other isms), violence, and White supremacy at Warner – more than a few of us study these and related issues and teach about them; some of us experience them on a daily basis. Recent abuses by police officers that are being made visible with digital and social media are the most obvious, but there are many, many more avenues through which brutality is used on Black and Brown people and communities. We know that there are multiple levels at which racism operates (individual, institutional, societal). We know that violence is seen in many forms as well, in terms of inadequate education, health care, housing, and access to jobs; media images that cast Black and Brown people as one-dimensional, dangerous, and pitiable; and the too-tight coupling of schooling and prisons through criminalization of Black and Brown children and young people. Here, I’m hoping to add to conversations that don’t shy away from the realities of White supremacy and White privilege, that don’t try to shield White people from considering our parts in this awful moment in history, and that call what is happening what it is – racially based violence that shows how much hatred, shame, fear, and guilt exists in our country and society.

As a social and cultural foundations teacher (teaching “diversity” courses), a White researcher, and a White woman, emotional, visceral responses by many White people to such events are familiar. There is the denial that one is racist or complicit in the systemic racism that structures our schools and other institutions. There is guilt that paralyzes us into thinking that we can’t do anything of substance. There is despair at the enormity of the problem, leading to another form of paralysis. As an instructor, I know I have the responsibility to help students move past these feelings to a place where spaces of possibility are visible. For many of us at Warner, the delicate dance of avoiding raising students’ defenses while engaging in difficult dialogue that forces awareness is a constant act in teaching. Today, though, the reaction on my mind is something that prevents dialogue in culturally mixed classrooms (and other forums like community action groups, dinner tables, bars) from happening at all – the feeling that we don’t have authority to speak, as we are (privileged) White people. This kind of reaction paralyzes not only our learning, but our work as allies, as partners in dialogue and action.

I looked back at a 2012 Warner Blog post by my colleague, Professor Ed Brockenbrough, in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin. His suggestions for what teacher educators can/should do to work against White supremacy are sound, practical, and still timely. I’d like to offer, humbly, some additional thoughts for schools of education in general, and myself, White colleagues, and White allies committed to racial and social justice:

  • Push beyond the boundaries to understanding that stem from growing up White and living in a society that is racist. Things like re-segregation of schools and neighborhoods militate against person-to-person interaction across races/ethnicities (see Frankenburg & Orfield’s 2014 seminal work). The invisibility of White privilege and institutional racism also shields people from recognizing White supremacy and endemic racism in our society (see Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995, on critical race theory in education). The US history we are taught in schools leaves out much of the history of Black and Brown people in this country and virtually all of the history of White oppression, genocide, and racism. The existence of an assumed ‘normal,’ ‘average’ (White) person, family, and community isn’t questioned. The lack of understanding in the larger White world as to what leads to these abominations is astonishing to me. The depth of the ignorance takes my breath away. Just imagine how Black and Brown people may find this flabbergasting (but not surprising). I’m not slamming White people, though many may feel that way. Still, I am NOT giving us a pass. The claims that, “I’m not racist,” and “Not all White people are racists” are largely true, but they mask the larger, historical, structural nature of institutions like schools, policing, universities, and jails/prisons. We are responsible for educating ourselves.
  • Recognize White supremacy and White privilege as the foundations of education. When I first started teaching social and cultural foundations courses, I assigned readings on social class, race, ability, and gender early in the semester, saving the more “difficult” readings on White privilege for later. I hoped that White students would be better prepared to address issues so close to home, that their defenses wouldn’t be triggered so easily. I hoped that students of color would feel affirmed in that these foundations of education were made visible and the subject of critical analysis. Over the years I have switched that order, starting the semester with White privilege and institutional racism. Rather than leaving these foundations of education invisible, I find that acknowledging them with my students and then moving on to their effects changes their understanding of how schools work. Sometimes inequities seem less daunting when their sources are made visible. Work by Allan Johnson on power and privilege; Margaret LeCompte and Kathleen deMarrais on the structures of schooling; Peggy McIntosch on White privilege; and Bryan Brayboy, Tara Yosso, and Dolores Delgado Bernal on forms of critical race theory have all been well received in my classes due to their combination of theory and practice. White students seem more receptive and students of color seem less apprehensive when these foundations of education are the starting point.
  • Assume and recognize the asset- and resource-rich nature of Black and Brown communities. We are bombarded with negative images of Black and Brown people. Media of all types – newspapers, online news sources, television, movies – beat the drum of deficit, danger, dysfunction, and despair as the only images of people and communities of color. Deficit assumptions also ground way too much social science research, too. For example, classic deficit-based studies by Moynihan (“The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” 1965; “The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians and Irish of New York City,” 1963)[1] have a long and still-present legacy in social science research. A recent headline in the University of Rochester’s daily online news feed announced that, “Stress in low-income families can affect children’s learning.” This is an example of the language that is insidious in the way it positions families living in poverty (aka Black and Brown families) as dysfunctional. Sure, stress leads to higher levels of cortisol and of course that is bad. But what about middle and high-income families that are stressful (distant caregivers, instability, etc., factors the authors list for the families they studied)? The silence about middle and high income (aka White families) is deafening and paints poverty as inevitably leading to dysfunction. As a White ally and researcher, I am more interested in understanding how families living under stress – poverty as the main example, along with racism – thrive, succeed, and achieve good health and wellbeing. The silence about those aspects of families is also deafening, but in a different way. That way is dangerous, a form of symbolic violence, and unnecessary. More recent work by Tyrone Howard (“HowDoes It Feel to be a Problem? Black Male Students, Schools, and Learning in Enhancing the Knowledge Base to Disrupt Deficit Frameworks, 2004), and Michael Rodriguez and Diana Morrobel (“A Review of Latino Youth Development Research and a Call for an Asset Orientation,” 2001) paint a different picture that positions Black and Brown as more fully human and as amazingly resilient in the face of oppression. These are the kinds of readings I find more useful in my classes and my research, and the kinds of assumptions that foster understanding, solidarity, action, and hope.
  • Engage in discussions of race that are wide-ranging and fraught, trusting those involved to help moderate a civil discussion. The scariest response I see when issues of White privilege and White supremacy are brought up is silence. Paulo Freire, a giant in liberatory pedagogy, saw dialogue as a humanizing act, essential in pedagogical settings that seek to uncover systems of privilege and to move together to action. My students have taught me that they are willing and imminently able to help navigate tense discussions. The most recent course evaluations in one course, Diversity and Equity in Education in a Global Context, had several students challenging me to be less careful in leading discussions, to allow the class to tackle the really touchy, uncomfortable, and “third rail” topics. My instinct has been to protect people’s feelings, to retreat to more academic discourse, or to squelch angry exchanges. I really thought I was taking risks and being somewhat courageous, but my students are saying no, let us go deeper, let us feel more, hurt more, struggle more so we can learn more. As a White educator, I know I am often afforded more leeway than educators of color in leading these discussions; my responsibility is to leverage that positioning into more and more difficult and honest exchanges. Dissent and grappling with ideas are critical to learning and teaching about thorny issues. While my example here is from classrooms, I have found similar dynamics in work with communities of color here in Rochester. This is not new information – dialogue and dissent as foundational for learning have been known for centuries. Still, we are seeing a resurgence of overt racism and a legislative context in which attacking central constitutional and human rights (voting; rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) is a daily occurrence.
  • Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church is the oldest AME church in the south. It is referred to as "Mother Emanuel".  Emanuel has one of the largest and oldest black congregations south of Baltimore, Maryland. Source: Charleston City Paper
    Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church is the oldest AME church in the south. It is referred to as “Mother Emanuel”. Emanuel has one of the largest and oldest black congregations south of Baltimore, Maryland. Source: Charleston City Paper

    Counteract the re-segregation of our society and develop cross-cultural competencies. Reading widely and from outlets that publish work by scholars of color, watching videos, and having guest speakers in class are all powerful parts of teaching about diversity and equity. Nothing can replace face-to-face interaction, though. Numerous Warner instructors engage students in fieldwork as parts of our courses, not to mention student teaching, and counseling and administrator internships. A note of caution from my own experience: I remember supporting a doctoral student at another university in assigning master’s students, almost all White, to “urban” field placements. This student was deeply committed to racial and social justice, considered her self a knowledgeable ally, and recognized the power of human relationships. She asked about sending students to welfare offices, hospitals, homeless shelters, and the like. The shock on her face when I suggested community centers, churches, and recreation centers was stunning. To be frank, I had only recently encountered work by Gonzalez and Moll (2001) on funds of knowledge (practices, networks, assets, resources developed in communities as they negotiate stress and oppression) that made me recognize the dangers in placements where people of color are positioned as needing help, as broken, and in need of “redemption.” Seeing my students and graduate assistants’ (as well as my own) successes in learning and relationship building based on asset-based, resource-rich knowledge of Black and Brown people and communities affirms the need for humility and for entering communities as learners rather than redeemers.

As educators and researchers, we have opportunities to foster critical changes our schools and society. Further, being White, to my mind, brings particular responsibilities if we want to be active allies and participants in combatting racism, White supremacy, and continuing inequity and violence. Some of those responsibilities include being humble, knowing that we don’t/can’t know some very important things, recognizing the nature of racism in the US institutions, accepting that White supremacy and White privilege affect us and not just people of color, and entering communities as learners. I am very interested to hear other people’s thoughts.

[1] See and for critiques of Moynihan’s reports.

Warner School Student Emerald Amory-Williams Offers an Open Response to Dr. Ares