“When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”
I have tried to find an attribution for this quote, but I can’t find one. I feel like whoever said it was trying to tell us something about the world we are living in today.
As I watched white supremacists gather in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend to chant things like “blood and soil” (a phrase popular among Nazis) and “you will not replace us,” I became angry. I became angry because I have done all that I can to see the shades of grey that exist in our current political landscape. I actually have friends who get frustrated with me, because I have tried over the last year to understand the mindset of those who voted for President Trump. As a teacher, I believe it is important to see the many sides of any particular issue, and I believe that it is important for teachers to ask students to suspend judgment while they collect evidence before making determinations.
When President Trump stated that the unrest and violence in Charlottesville could be blamed on “many sides,” I got angry.
While it is certainly true that there is more than one side to issues of equality in our country, it is important to say this: not all sides are right. The white supremacists who came to Charlottesville this weekend are wrong. Real conversations about race, equality, and social justice require honest, complex, and challenging dialogue among thoughtful people. The racists who marched through the streets of Charlottesville have no interest in that conversation; the problem is that they have become empowered to believe that their hateful rhetoric belongs in the conversation. They believe that the current political climate is an opportunity to bring hate, racism and intolerance into our national conversation about what it is to be an American. They are wrong, and we need to say so. Not only do we need to say so, but our leaders need to say so. I was pleased to see so many of our leaders call out the racism that was on display this weekend, but those who tried to spin a narrative that “many sides” were to blame should be ashamed of themselves.
I spent two days last week in a building with 2,000 educators talking about how we can make our schools better. Specifically, we were discussing how we create a culture in our schools in which ALL students believe they can succeed. We talk a lot about “achievement gaps” in our schools. There is no doubt these gaps are real, but the discussion becomes more challenging when we talk about the “attitude gaps” and the “opportunity gaps” that exist in our schools. As a group of white supremacists are marching around Virginia trying to convince us that they are being oppressed, we know there are real gaps in opportunities among students in our schools. It is going to take teachers, school leaders, political leaders and communities to address the fact that all of our students don’t find the same opportunities to succeed in our schools. But if we allow ourselves to engage in the hateful rhetoric of those who are spewing Nazi propaganda as a way to further divide us, then all is lost.
During my two days discussing the culture of our schools last week, there were a lot of great conversations, but maybe equally important was what wasn’t discussed. There wasn’t a discussion of how we can profit off of public education, there wasn’t a discussion of cracking down on affirmative action as a way to make our colleges and universities better, there wasn’t a discussion of how a reduction in after school programs would make our schools better, there wasn’t a discussion of how a reduction in arts funding would make our schools better, and there certainly wasn’t a discussion of how creating equitable learning conditions for ALL students comes at the expense of the white supremacists who were marching this weekend.
As schools across the country start up this month, teachers are going to open their doors and arms to ALL students. Teachers are going to work hard to close the opportunity gaps that exist in our system. It isn’t easy, because our students don’t all come to us looking like the kids you see in those back-to-school ads, and that’s the way we like it. We got into teaching not because it is easy work, but because we know there are kids in all of our schools who need us to give them hope. It is hard to convince a young kid to be hopeful in a world where white supremacists are recognized as just “another side” of our national debate about equality. Some of that hope will come from saying out loud that those people marching through the streets of Charlottesville are wrong. Hope will come to our students if they hear the message from Nelson Mandela that President Obama shared on Saturday:
No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.