#vted Reads: The Other Talk
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Jeanie: In this episode, I sit down with educational phenoms Christie Nold and Jess Lifshitz. And we’re joined by Brendan Kiely, Author of The Other Talk: Reckoning with Our White Privilege.
Now, you might be wondering what The Other Talk actually is. As many of you know, black people and other people of the global majority frequently have to have “The Talk” with their children about how to survive when they’re stopped by police in America. That’s right, when they’re stopped by police. It’s the talk about how to survive that experience. Parents often draw the meat of it from their own experiences of brutality and loss. But what talk do white people have with their children? Lovely listeners, this episode goes out to everyone who believes in young people, as Jess Lifshitz puts it, more than they believe in adults. Don’t get us wrong, adults, you are salvageable. But boy, there is work to be done. I’m Jeanie Phillips, and this is #vted Reads; a podcast about books by, for and with Vermont educators. Let’s talk.
Thank you so much for joining me, Brendan, Christie, and Jess. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.
Brendan: Well, I’m honored to have been chosen to go first. So well, it’s great to be here. Thank you. I’m Brendan Kiely, the Author of The Other Talk: Reckoning with Our White Privilege and other novels, including Co-Authoring, All American Boys with Jason Reynolds. It’s really great to have an opportunity to talk about issues and ideas and heartfelt feelings that I care deeply about. I hope to ground this conversation as often as possible in the notion of lived experience as opposed to an intellectual exercise about the damage that racism causes in our country. And I say that, because I’ve been thinking a lot about how often I didn’t think about my own lived experience when I was thinking about conversations about race and racism in America. So that’s why I’m sharing that.
I also just have to share, since we’re also talking about books that I’m currently reading is The 1619 Project and I’m just taking it in chunks at a time and I’m not trying to read it all at once. I’m going in between other reading, as well. But it feels like maybe the single most important book to read right now as a grounding point and as a as an effort to say, we all should be reading this. This should be canon in our educational experience. And when I’m taking a break from that, I’m reading Love and Other Poems by Alex Dimitrov which is just beautiful.
Jeanie: Well, thank you so much for that. How about you, Christie?
Christie: Everyone, it is so great to be here and be here with all of you. My name is Christie Nold. I use she/her pronouns and I am zooming in today from Abenaki Land here in Vermont. I am a white educator in a predominantly white school that is less than five miles from my childhood home, which is by intention and design. And so, I’m excited to be part of this conversation and talk about one of the things that I read in the wonderful book, The Other Talk about what it means to have my whiteness show up with me every day at school.
And what I’m reading right now is from the wonderful Mr. Tom Rad from Twitter, Raising Ollie: How My Nonbinary Art-Nerd Kid Changed Nearly Everything I Know. And one of the things that I love so much about this book is that on the face of it, it is the story of this one incredible kid, but in the depth of it really is truly a story about education and who it serves and who it doesn’t and why. I’m really challenged to think differently and deeply by Tom in this text. And it’s pulling at some of my heartstrings around public education, which I so deeply believe in, but what happens when that public education isn’t serving every kid. So, it’s a great book to challenge my thinking and I certainly recommend it.
Jeanie: Thank you so much, Christie. Jess?
Jess: Hi. I’m Jess Lifshitz. I am coming in tonight from near Chicago sitting on Kickapoo, Peoria, and Potawatomi Land. I use she/her pronouns. I teach fifth-grade literacy. And then you said, we’re supposed to say who we are and what we do, and my first thought was mostly I’m just trying to survive each day, which I feel like captures a lot of what we’re doing right now. In terms of what I’m reading, just minutes ago, (and this is true, I’m not just trying to suck up), finished Stuntboy, in the Meantime, written by Jason Reynolds, and illustrated by Raul the Third and it is a beautiful book in all the ways. I just finished it tonight, but I book talked it to my students earlier today. And they could not get to it fast enough. And if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It is beautiful to look at and it is a beautiful story. So that is what I just finished.
And then as I’ve been walking to try and deal with the world, I’ve been listening to an audiobook to Clint Smith’s How the Word is Passed. And I feel similarly to how Brendan was speaking about The 1619 Project, that is how I’m feeling about Clint Smith’s book as well. He actually reads the audiobook, and he has such a melodic voice that he’s saying these hugely transformational, powerful things. He sang them in this beautiful voice as well. And he speaks so much about how education has been used and abused in the past in order to try and – or attempt to cover up our racist history. And it leaves you feeling angry about that, but it also leaves you feeling like then we can use education to do better. And so those themes really connected to The Other Talk as well. So that is what I’m reading.
Jeanie: I just couldn’t agree more with Jess, with your sentiment about that book and it made me think about how I love that book so much and it’s so reflective as Clint Smith is visiting places. And Brendan’s book similarly is so reflective as he revisits his memories. And so, the memory I’m going to start with is what you start with at the beginning of the book. What’s it like to be friends with Jason Reynolds? I mean, I would die to be friends with Jason Reynolds.
Brendan: Well, you have to remember too that we became friends before really either one of us had much of a career. And it’s a different kind of story to be a part of a process of a career evolving and growing and a person too who evolves into the role that he plays. And so, I think it’s so funny. I mean, I giggled as you asked the question because I obviously get asked that question all the time. And I love it because I love him.
And I’m so grateful that his mother and I swap letters when we are in the same town, we take time so that we’re just ourselves and away from all the public. And it feels like exactly what we set out to do when we sat down to write All American Boys. We had rules that we came up with. And Jason offered the first rule, and I almost want to cry repeating it right now, because he said, “The first rule has to be the friendship always comes first no matter what happens in the business.” And that is true to this day. And it’s recently been his birthday, so happy belated birthday man.
Jeanie: I love that. Thank you for fielding that. I needed to start with something a little softer, because the question I had as my first question is not. So, I’m going to throw that out there next. You write about what it means to be white in America and I know that Jess and Christie and I think about that a lot. But you have some quotes in here from page 23 said,
Living as a white person is white privilege.
And then a little further on page 27, you say,
We, white people are getting away with something that we know is wrong.
And I was strongly reminded of a podcast conversation with Dr. Helms on the Teaching While White podcast about white racial identity development. So, I went back and listened to that. And I’m wondering if – maybe all three of you but starting with Brendan- could talk a little bit about your own racial identity development and how you came to understand yourself as white.
Brendan: I really appreciate grounding the conversation in this way, because I think people and white people in particular are often afraid to begin to have a conversation about their own, and our own racial identity because it’s so strange. It’s not part of the talk that we often have when we talk about racial identity at all. And I think that’s part of the problem. It’s been masked in some ways even though the construction of race as we all know is a construction that’s for our benefit as white people. And so it seems so insidious that the motivation for it is so well hidden and the result there is then a kind of invisibility or a disconnect from my own racial identity.
So, all that’s to say, thinking about my own racial identity, then it comes in moments of shock and shame and guilt and messing up and recognizing, my gosh, this is tied to my racial identity. So, for example, shortly after Barack Obama was elected president, I was in a conversation with a group of friends that a house, the room was a multiracial mix of people. And in particular, the folks in the room who were black were listening to me speak about how I kept using a phrase like, the poor guy, the poor guy, and not realizing how it landed in the ears of some of the folks who were celebrating Barack Obama, not just for the election and for his policies, but for who he was as a member of a community that they felt a part of. And I went on to claim something to the effect of, well, Barack Obama is more my President, I’m more Barack Obama or something like that than I am George W. Bush or some phrase like that. And not speaking intellectually and not recognizing the difference of lived experience in the room. I share that anecdote because that wasn’t all that long ago. I mean, now it’s a little bit long ago, but it wasn’t all that long ago. And I was a shameful adult to be not being aware of myself in the room in that way.
And I feel like that’s the process from when I was younger that there are moments that I was shocked into some awareness of my white racial identity and that I will be tomorrow and the next day as well. And that it’s a road of growth. And I’m curious to hear what Christie and Jess have to say, because I’m not in these kinds of conversations often with other white folks, I’m not often into engaging and sharing in this way and I think that’s honestly part of the problem.
Christie: One of the things that I love so much about Dr. Helms model is the way she talks about it as statuses which I feel like I just heard in your anecdote, this idea that it’s not a linear process, but rather these statuses that a person might drop back into. And that leaving one status doesn’t mean you won’t revisit it again later. And there’s that first encounter status that status as you described of this idea of shock. And this is Christie, by the way.
And one of the things I – that’s – it’s being in that status that I think I remember most often. Some of the other statuses aren’t always as clear to me. But a moment from that status that I remember fairly clearly is also a more recent moment, after the murder of Trayvon Martin, in which I was reflecting with a white friend about how that could have been one of our students. And I was really stuck on this idea of Trayvon and his murder and how just the horrific nature of it all.
And my friend very quickly responded, “It’s far more likely that we are teaching future Zimmerman’s than teaching a future Trayvon,” given the fact that so many of our students in the district that we were working in together at the time identified as white, identified as students of privilege and although Zimmerman himself doesn’t identify in that way, when thinking about racial violence, so many of the folks who go on to perpetrate that violence are white body people. And so it was that moment of transition for me from thinking about these outward facing conversations which I’d been involved in from a very savior narrative place and hadn’t quite realized until that moment switched toward a more inward facing conversation of what does it look like, what would it look like if my work were with and among white folks to disrupt that cycle of violence rather than tending to this idea of savior of potential victory to violence. And so, as you were talking, that was the story that was coming to my mind and thinking about my white racial identity and this idea of ideally movement out of or at least certainly recognition of times when I’m sitting within some white savior complex.
Jess: It’s so interesting, because I was taking notes to get ready tonight. And I also identified the moment of Trayvon’s murder as one that was transformational for me. And of course, it is hard to admit that it took such a tragic, horrific event to get me to that point. But for me, there was what I remember so vividly was actually hearing black mothers speak about the talk that they gave to their specifically sons is what I remember. And I remember realizing that I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that that talk existed. And when I started to unpack that, I realized how very much by design my world was kept very white. And not because I have racist parents, I have lovely, wonderful parents who made choices in these racist systems that kept my world so white.
And so, for me, it was a moment that made me realize how many voices my life was lacking. And it started me on this sort of journey. And where it took me was online to Twitter and allowed me to find the voices that had not been a part of my life. And just the – it’s why I say no one has an excuse to not seek out stories from a wide variety of people any longer, because for as much as – as problematic as social media is, it also allows us access to all sorts of voices and all sorts of lives. And for me, that’s where the journey started is really finding voices like Val Brown’s and Dr. Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dr. Debbie Reese. And hearing perspectives that were never given to me in school and that it was by hearing how my whiteness and the whiteness of others impacted people’s lives. That’s what started my own racial identity and understanding, because you’re right, we don’t have these conversations.
And the last thing I’ll say is I often share this story that when I do identity webs with my students, and my students, I teach in a district that is mostly white, high socioeconomic status. And so, when we start unpacking identity, it’s often the first time my fifth graders have had these types of conversations. And I begin by sharing my identity with them. And I put on there that I’m a lesbian and at this point, no reaction. It’s sort of like, yeah, okay, no big deal. I then say that I’m white. And there is this audible gasp and you’re like, really, that’s what you’re surprised by that you didn’t know. But they had – they are so not used to hearing people name, race as a facet of identity. It’s like if we can’t even name it without gasping, how can we start to really understand how our whiteness is impacting others? And so, we use that, right? We unpack that. Why are you gasping? What did I just say? How are you feeling? And why are you feeling that way? And it’s really a powerful moment. So, to watch young people start to wrestle with that is a powerful thing.
Jeanie: Brendan, did you want to say something?
Brendan: I was just responding to Jess’s comments, because there are so many moments where, whether it’s Jason and I presenting together or I’m presenting on my own and I’m telling a story and I launch into the phrase, “White Boy”, that is the moment of gasp in a predominantly white auditorium. Sometimes if it’s not a predominantly white, and it’s predominantly non-white, it’s more of sometimes chuckle, sometimes something else. But its recognition, because of course, like that naming and knowing and witnessing my whiteness is so common for people who are not white. And I appreciate your use of the word impact a number of times, because I think for me also part of the thinking about my white racial identity is a question of accountability, because my racial identity by default affects other people’s lives. And so, I just appreciate what you both were saying and forgive me sweeping back in there, but it was just so visceral, it’s so real. I feel that too.
Jeanie: Well, and it’s a perfect segue to my next question which is that I probably like many people listening grew up – many white people listening grew up as a white person with a sense that being not racist meant that you didn’t talk about race and you wouldn’t say that race didn’t matter, right? And I no longer believe that. But it’s still really common when I was in a school library to hear kids say things that I still found in your book over and over again. And so, I appreciated that your book, one of the many things I appreciate it is that it forces us to focus on reality that the way that race matters in our world. And you invite us as white folks to be reflective about our own experiences through a lens of race in a way that I think we’re not accustomed to. And I wondered if you might read a little bit starting on page 34. Do you have a copy of the book with you, Brendan? Do you have a copy of your own book?
Brendan: Yes, I do.
Jeanie: I’m looking down…
Brendan: I have too many copies.
Jeanie: I’m looking down at the second paragraph to the bottom. And it starts, “But one thing I do know for sure is that.” And I wondered if you could read up to the end of that little section on the top of page 35.
But one thing I do know for sure is that I have to tell all my stories now more truthfully– by always including my whiteness and asking how it plays a role.
And I get it, it can feel weird– really weird. Hard, maybe. It can even hurt. But even if it hurts a little… yup, we still have to give it a try. We still have to go there.
And just to be clear: talking about being white, talking about white privilege, isn’t anti-white. It’s just being honest. If I’m honest with myself– about being white– I can learn; I can grow. I can do better.
Because that’s what I want to do: do better.
Jeanie: I really appreciate that framing. And I wonder if we could talk a little bit about what your hopes are for when kids are reading this book.
Brendan: I’d be curious actually to throw that to Jess and Christie if you don’t mind, because you’re in a position to be with those young folks more immediately than I am. And I’m envious of your situation, I used to teach, and I no longer do, and I missed the classroom.
Christie: One of the things that I have actually been wondering about gets back to this question of audience. I was curious as you were writing who you might have had in mind. And I went back and forth around this. One of the things that was on my mind was this line that I got from Dr. Leilani Sabzalian who in talking about indigenous communities, she names this idea of outward facing work, that is the amount of time and energy that indigenous folks and researchers have to spend convincing people outside of community that there is a problem and that their lives and experiences matter. And she describes the way in which so much effort and energy goes into proving or providing evidence that there’s little energy left for the inward facing toward community love and celebration.
And I found in your text lots of moments where it was and here’s the evidence, let me show you the evidence, here’s the overwhelming evidence. And so, I went back and forth in my own mind between are you writing for for young people, for young white people potentially who already see and might understand their whiteness and might understand race as a social construct? Or were you writing for a white student who might be rejecting that and are providing evidence? Or are you hoping that this book becomes an umbrella that could hold both of those students within it? And so, I’m going to toss your question right back potentially, because when I sat with your text, I kept thinking in my head, this is the perfect book for X student. And then I’d read a little further and think no, no, no, this is the perfect book for YA students. And so, in my mind, this whole time has been this question around who you imagined picking up this text and engaging with it.
Brendan: Jess, do you have anything you want to add before I respond?
Jess: No, go ahead.
Brendan: Okay. I appreciate that. I’m often a fan of switching from either or to both and I am going to do that again here and I’m going to go even further, because the idea – I hope the book works as a kind of not unlike how with our – we were talking about the statuses and how you can move in and out in – when you’re grappling with your white racial identity as a white person. I think that there are times in which no matter how much you already have an instinct for or an understanding of the impact of white privilege and the world around you, evidence is helpful sometimes even just to arm yourself in conversation with others. And so, I personally found that I wanted to accrue that kind of evidence in a way that wasn’t just assumed but was concrete in a way that if I were talking to family members as I do every Thanksgiving. I would have some concretes as opposed to just emotional outbursts, which is usually where it starts and ends.
In addition, I think there’s also a kind of moments where people who are just being introduced to it can access it through emotion. And so it isn’t about evidence, as much as it’s about anecdotal stories and here’s me messing up, maybe you have had a similar situation. And it doesn’t make us horrible people, it makes us worse people if we know it and then don’t reflect on it and don’t try to do anything about it and not make the mistake again. But it doesn’t make us horrible people to not know and make mistakes and not knowing it’s the then knowing that’s important, I think. And how we – Jess, as you mentioned before too, begin to seek out the wisdom of others in a way that we may not have had before. And so for me, I’m hoping that the book works in that kind of push and pull and back and forth. And there are some moments of the book that would work for this particular white student and other moments that would work for another white student.
Now, I clarify that by saying these different white students, because, yes, primarily, it’s a book for an assumed white audience in the same way that the talk that we referenced earlier, the talk that Jason’s mother gave Jason was not even assumed, it was directly a conversation about black identity and interactions with law enforcement. But also, that talk expanded, right, it’s not just about law enforcement, it’s about his existence in a day-to-day world.
And so, while I primarily am trying to do something similar for white students and white families, I also hope that on some level it can also be a book that for readers who are not white like me and my family, there it can be an opportunity to say, this is someone who has listened to that thing that I said, this is a moment of somebody who has heard. As some of my friends and I have discussed, when you hear the call to action, do you just keep it inside or do you do something about it? And so, for example, in conversation with Renee Watson, she and I have talked about this quite a bit that that call to action demand some public action and acknowledgement of having heard it. And so, my hope is that the book also offers that opportunity for non-white readers as well. That’s a leap. That’s a leap I understand. And again, primarily, the book is to open up those conversations with white readers. So, I hope that answers your question, because I think the initial question and the compounding more complicated follow up to it, I love, so thanks.
Jeanie: Thank you for that, Christie, thank you for deepening the question. And now, I’m going to lob it to Jess and ask, what are your hopes for kids who read this book?
Jess: I will be honest that it is hard to find hope these days in the educational space, I think just in the universe space. This book made me hopeful. And I don’t say that because the author is sitting right here, I mean, many miles away, but via Zoom. And I had a very emotional response to the section that you just read. And I think the part that I responded to is this trust you have in young people and the whole book read that way that you trust that young people can handle discomfort. And so much of the pushback that we’re hearing from white folks right now is this need to protect comfort and it’s connected to so many things, right, mask wearing, the teaching of accurate history, all of those things. And it’s – this needs to protect comfort. And what you start to wrestle with in the part you just read is this idea that it’s okay to feel discomfort, especially when that discomfort comes from a reckoning, an awakening, a recognition of the fact that you were born into a system that you have benefited from.
And I often think about how all those folks who are screaming about protecting kids from discomfort maybe have never had the privilege of witnessing children when they start to finally understand what’s been hidden from them, right. When – as a fifth-grade teacher, I have watched as children for the first time recognize the privilege. When they recognize they’re not lucky, they’re benefiting from a system that was designed to operate. So, it benefited them while taking away from others. And it is empowering. Kids are empowered, because once they recognize they’re part of a system, they realize they can change it, they can work to change it, that they’re not these helpless bystanders.
The discomfort comes when they realize all the adults around them have been keeping the truth from them, because they wouldn’t say it’s because they don’t trust them to deal with it, right. I like to think it comes from a place of love and desiring to protect your own child. But when there is a righteous anger that comes when kids start to see the truth and then that anger is often followed by this empowered feeling of, okay, so you’re telling me that this is the way things are, let’s figure out how we can change it. And I think so much of this book speaks to that that constant refrain of you have to understand it so that you can understand how to make it better. And that makes me hopeful, because I believe in young people way more than I believe in adults these days. And this idea that if we can help them understand things, they want to change them and I believe they will, because certainly no one taught me these things as I was growing up.
So, what do I hope for kids? I don’t know that my fifth graders are ready to tackle the book themselves. But I hope that the adults around them read it. And I hope it inspires them to trust children. And I think there are certainly pieces of it we can dig into together. But my hope for kids is that they have adults around them who trust them the way Brendan has trusted his audience in the book. So, it left me very hopeful. That’s my long answer.
Brendan: No, I really appreciate that, because there are so many more anecdotes that I can share about young people that I’ve met all across the country, whether it’s in Anchorage, Alaska, or parts of Florida, or other students – the students that I met in Baton Rouge, or whatever the case may be who have that instinct for, what do we need to know so that we can do better. And that they’re kind of hungry for that which has been hidden from them or any access to more information.
I mean, this might sound odd, but I feel like the same instinct for one’s want to belief in a kind of – in magic as a young person, right, is a search for a kind of truth, is a search for something out there that can provide solutions to the problems that I feel all the time around me. And what feels really negligent on the part of adults in our country right now is to deny kids access to the very tools that – and information that can help lead to that fairer society. So, I’m with you 100%. Let’s trust them. I don’t see another way out. I mean, there was that – I don’t know if you saw that article in the Washington Post last summer that was about all the hubbub in Traverse City, Michigan. And The New York Times interviewer interviewed a second grader and the second-grader who was white was grappling with what she had learned about racism. And she said, “Although it hurt to hear about it and learn about it, it made me want to learn more so that I could do more.” If a second grader can do this, then God, can’t we as old broken people, I guess?
Jess: I actually, really appreciate that you say there were so many more anecdotes of children taking action or young people taking action that you wanted to put in. I actually so appreciated that the action chapter didn’t come until the very end. I think it was maybe chapter 20, because I think the mistake so many white adults make is that rush into the action. I think we saw that. I think this extreme pendulum from the summer of 2020 to the summer of 2021 with evidence of the danger of white folks rushing to action to check it off a checklist. Well, what do we do? How do we fix it? Without doing all the understanding first and that the action comes from understanding. And I felt like your book, the way it was structured, I actually really appreciated that the action didn’t come until much later on. And yes, I think you could fill many volumes of the beautiful actions young people did. But the power of the book was really – well, let’s get to the understanding that leads to that action.
Brendan: I really appreciate that, because that was the point. And to undergird all action with four chapters of listening first, because the listening is, I think, an action. And it’s the action that at least folks like me need to do a lot more before I engage in any other of that public action after I’ve heard that call to action. But speaking of listening, Jeanie, I see you hovering by the microphone.
Jeanie: Right, totally hovering. Before you get to listening, though, you do this really important paradigm shift. And I actually took pictures of these pages and the cover and sent it to my friend Erika Saunders, because she’s the person who said to me, “You know, white privilege is a rather sanitizing phrase. It covers up all sorts of evils.” And then you really articulate it really well. And I’m going to read from page 60. I’m going to read this time, because I’m a librarian and I love that.
When I was growing up, I was taught that racism denies. It denies people their voting rights, their access to more valuable housing, their ability to compete for higher-paying jobs. The list of things racism denied was long– it is long.
But I never looked at it the other way around– I was never taught to look at it like this: if racism disadvantages some people, then it also advantages others. Think about it:
If one person is denied more valuable housing, another person gets it.
If one person is denied a higher paying job, someone else gets it.
And if you deny one person something, you’re giving the advantage to another person. Or privileges, right. And with racism, the denials give those advantages to– you guessed it– white people. So, the privileges go to white people… and we are right back to white privilege.
And I think that’s really important given what Jess said, is that we talk about racism in this generic way. But we never talk about how it impacts us as white folks, how we are complicit with it. And I really appreciated that you shift that paradigm. And I wondered if you could talk a little bit about that comes really early in the book, before the listening, way before the action and I wondered if we could talk about that as a group a little bit.
Brendan: Yeah, I really appreciate that, because I grappled with the term white privilege in and of itself, because I often think that it sanitizes the extreme horrors of white supremacy and a culture that is so good at making its white supremacy, because that is imbedded, encoded into our legal system from the inception of our Constitution. And so, I grappled with using that term, because I think it’s important to name white supremacy. And because I want the book to be an invitation for folks who may be wrestling with it, I was consciously making a choice to use a term that I felt like was more widely understood and even if it’s challenged or whatever it might be, it might not feel as threatening as naming it as white supremacy. And I have heard criticism about that. And I really hear it and take it to heart, but I made the choice that I wanted to share that with you all to see what you think too.
But I also wanted to think about it in a way where you could talk about advantages as privileges, because I also want to use the term privilege that white folks who are not economically advantaged often, they’d rub-up against that word privilege and they say, well, I’m not privileged. But I wanted to talk about what social privilege looks like that has nothing to do with economics. And so, I felt like it was a term that I could go in both directions with it in a way that – and talk about it.
And as I mentioned in the book, I wanted to use the phrase from Claudia Rankine, like, it’s just white living, it’s living as a white person. And in earlier drafts that actually littered the text a lot more, but it became pretty redundant, and you have to cut some things. But I’m curious. I’m curious what everybody else thinks about that. I really appreciate this question. So, I’m curious to hear your thoughts.
Christie: One of the things that I’m thinking about goes back to that idea or question of audience and what it means to provide an onramp for folks who are entering into conversation. And a good friend and mentor of mine, Paul Yoon, talks about this metaphor of a flower opening or closing. And in his work, he talks about the need to allow for that opening in order for anything to penetrate and get through. And that, even in moments where he wants to be brutally honest and use language in its most precise form, he’s recognized that if that same language closes a person off from being able to hear that important message, then he’s lost his potential for that audience. And so, it’s tricky, because in your book, you do such a beautiful job talking about how language impacts our ideas, impacts our behaviors, impacts how we move through the world as white folks and so there is this desire or need for precision of language and there is the desire or need for onramps.
And I think that in some ways, the older the person the more gradual the onramp has been, in my experience, the more gradual that onramp is needed. So, when I think about, for example, my previous work mainly with sixth-graders, their walls of white supremacist construction were still really porous. They hadn’t solidified yet. And so, it was easier to penetrate through, because they didn’t have this sense of unlearning that my graduate students who are teachers needed to do when confronted with the exact same material. And so, when confronted with this idea of race as a social construct, my sixth graders were like, “Cool, it’s like gender. Moving on.” My graduate students were like, “Wait, biology, phenotype, what?” And so, it just makes me think about for your text that the onramp that I want to offer and provide for folks, I – in some ways, I wanted this text to be in the hands of adults more than young people, because I almost think that young people in that I’ve encountered could handle a more brutal onramp. I think you offer a really kind, compassionate and thoughtful onramp for folks. So, it makes me think about Liz Kleinrock’s Start Here, Start Now and how clear in her author’s note she was about that text offering onramps for educators who are coming into the work.
And I do feel that that has been missing a bit from what’s available to folks. I see a lot of 201, 301, 401 type of texts, I don’t see as many 101 texts that are honest and authentic, and that I feel comfortable putting in people’s hands. And I think this to me was that beautiful onramp that folks can take into the conversation to then continue through.
Jess: That I agree with Christie.
Brendan: It connects us everything you said earlier though to Jess when you were talking about teachers and we were talking about the audience for the book, as you were saying Christie. And honestly, one of my hopes is that it’s really read by a lot of teachers. That’s exactly what I mean it’s a book that’s published, it’s a YA book. But the hope is that it’s read by the people who work supposedly for and serve young folks the most. And it’s interesting, because I like the term onramps and I like the idea of that flower opening, I think that’s a beautiful image and I hadn’t heard that before and I really appreciate that.
And I’m thinking about a white boy that I met in Orlando, Florida who after reading All American Boys was grappling with the stories that his family had told about his white grandfather who was a cop in the Bronx, in the 1970s. And if – even for him, I think, if I had been too precise or the novel had been too precise or in the presentation at the school had been too precise, it may have closed down an opportunity for him to arrive at the – at what he shared with me after the presentation, which was, why can’t two things be true? Meaning, my family says we have to talk only about him being a hero, only he’s a hero, he’s a hero, he’s a hero. What if he was a hero for some and not for others, and possibly was the villain in other people’s stories? Can’t he be both? And that’s a 17-year-old boy who was grappling with just the real complexities of life. And I feel like if you create onramps and not to say, and you should be ashamed, and you should be – you should feel guilty and you should feel horrible and you should stop talking to your family, like that doesn’t get us anywhere when he can now be a more active member and maybe over dinner conversation can help complicate that story in a loving way with more family. And I think that’s the hope is that that’s to me what the other talk is about. It’s about creating the expansive sense of what that white racial identity is and how it’s impacted the lives of people in our communities, but also ourselves in our families. So, I really appreciate that so much.
Christie: One of the things you have me thinking about is a recent interview with Clint Smith to get back to Jess’s comment about his text earlier. He talks about this idea of white folks using history as a kind of family heirloom and that when history becomes an heirloom, this thing that’s passed down and is untouchable, the harm that can come from that. And what I’m also reflecting on as your speaking gets back to the initial question around white folks speaking with other white folks, I don’t expect my friends of the global majority to have the patience that offering an onramp might require.
I am at no time and I see like lots of nods in the Zoom conversation that the listeners can’t see of like that particular role that I believe white folks can play in the intra-racial, right, those conversations among white people to offer the grace, the patience to sit together in that shame, in that guilt, in those different statuses and not ask that that sitting with happen, the part of our friends who are black, brown, indigenous folks of color, both in the U.S. and abroad, because I understand that that in that on ramping a lot of harm and messiness can take place and happen. And it’s my hope that young people in particular, young white people who are grappling with this and developing their own racial identity are met by a compassionate elder in the work or compassionate young peer who can sit together with them through that messiness and keep them going up that onramp and keep them in the work. And again I don’t hold that expectation of any friends of the global majority. But I do hope for other white folks listening who might have read the book and be in that place of like, what do I do, I want to do something. That can I think be a really concrete place to put some time and energy is sitting together with white peers, white colleagues, with young white people in that kind of learning, unlearning messiness of the onramp.
Jeanie: And I think that that is especially true of white educators in this moment, in this political climate, in this moment we are living in, because I will tell you, it – there have been moments this school year where it has seemed like the work has become impossible. And when I say the work, I mean the antiracist work. That is how do we move forward? How do we move forward when we are under attack with very little support from so many places that have power and privilege and could be supportive? And what I come back to is the words of I know one of Christie’s heroes and many people’s Carla Shalaby, who talks about the power of collective resistance. It used to feel like enough to go in my classroom and close my door and do my antiracist teaching and feel good about it. And it’s no longer working, because one, it’s no longer safe in multiple ways even with all the privilege I as a white educator am wrapped in, it’s no longer safe. And two, it’s not changing the system. So, then it starts to feel impossible when we get to that handwringing stage which I don’t like.
And I come back to that’s why we keep talking to other white educators, because the way to move forward is to do it collectively, right, to join forces and to stand alongside BIPOC educators who have been doing the work and shouldering such a different heavy burden. And then as a white educator, what can I do, like Christie said, I can keep talking about it. And I somewhere wrote down what Brendan said too, that idea of start having these conversations about white privilege and racism all the time, right, be that annoying hand raiser in a staff meeting, keep bringing it up, keep pointing out the problems, keep suggesting a better way, keep sharing the work that students are capable of, because we have to get other white folks to join us. It no longer feels like enough to me to just go in my classroom and close the door. I have to bring folks, and when I say folks, I mean white folks into the work with me. And then collectively we push on admin, we push on school boards to vocally and visibly support us, because that’s how we move forward, right, that’s how we do the work. So, I don’t remember what question I was answering, but…
I just got to – sorry. I know I said you all should do all the talking. But there are a couple things that are like really bubbling for me. And one is Brendan brought up this holding of this kid holding like the hero and the can-do bad things. And I was thinking in your book, especially in chapter six, you really explored the paradox of race that it scientifically doesn’t exist, but that socially it does and has huge impact, right? And so, in a way that kid – that 17-year-old kid is able to like hold paradox. And this book really asked kids to hold paradox. So that’s one thing.
And then I’m thinking just about what you just said and feeling, like, and I am so guilty of this- about the problem with politeness. How often as white folks we defer to politeness instead of standing up and saying, hold on, wait a minute? And Brendan, you give a really great example in your book of that inaction. And how much it takes for us as white folks to stand up and say, what you’re doing right now is racist, like, because we’re so worried about politeness that we forget that they’re harming people in our midst. And who are we protecting with that politeness?
And then the third thing, and then I’m going to shut up and let you all say your brilliant words, because they bubble up in such interesting ways. And thinking about this book is such that your onramp really to borrow Christie’s words, your onramp is your humility in sharing your own stories from your youth, again, and from your adulthood, frankly, again and again and being willing to say, my God. Like, to put yourself out there in this vulnerable way and notice how race and racism shows up in your own life. And I just have such big appreciation for that, and whether it’s about politeness or about the dawning of paradox, or about just your own experience, I just so appreciated that. I don’t have a question. I’m just going to open the floor and mute myself again.
Christie: I’m trying to remember who I first heard the phrase ‘creative noncompliance’ from, but that is also really coming to mind for me, this idea of the many subversive ways that educators can continue in this moment and within the system. And so, it calls to mind. I think one of the sections of the book that stood out to me most was that moment, because I think I recognize myself in it the most, was that moment at the white privilege conference. When asked to “Stand in solidarity by leaving,” this decision made by a white participant about what this indigenous woman might need or want in that moment. And then to have that woman say, like, “No stay, I want you to stay. This is what you meaning white people always do, you get up and leave.” And it makes me think about something that – and again, I’m trying to call to mind, this comes from another person, this idea that if you – if a person were to walk away from whiteness in one situation, you’re likely to just run into it in the next that there isn’t a walking away from whiteness and yet that is in so many ways what white folks keep doing.
And so, one of the things that I hear from educators who are now (white educators in particular) being confronted with this idea of bans on critical race theory is like, well, I’ll just leave. And I want to invite white educators who are sitting with that, I’ll just leave sentiment to consider what it looks like to stay in the same way that the woman asked you to stay in that moment. What does it look like to be in this moment to be subversive to take a risk by teaching what necessarily needs to be taught to our young people? And I want to be really clear here. I’m not asking educators to stay in toxic environments that are actually dangerous to them, and to their health and wellbeing. But what I am asking is in particular for white educators who have privileges within this system, as much as possible to stay and make it better if you’re able.
And again, for folks who are stepping away for reasons of personal health, for reasons of family health, for reasons of wellbeing, for reasons that their school or their environment is too toxic, yes, do those things. And also, if the reason a person is stepping away is to say the system is too white, and the person stepping away is also white, again, I just want to invite a pause before fully pulling away and a request to really look around and consider that perhaps it is in that place that you can do the most work. And perhaps that place really needs you.
Jeanie: It’s okay to call each other in or call each other towards our better selves. And in fact, a lot of the smart people in our lives who can do that, and we shouldn’t expect people of the global majority our friends who are not white to do that for us. But we can lean on each other as white folks to pull us into that place we want to be when we slide and slip and slide in our own indoctrination in white supremacy, because we both got that, right? So, I just wanted to pull out that phrase, loving accountability.
And then I am one of those people who early on in the – what I’m going to call the critical race theory whiplash would say, my goodness, come on, schools aren’t teaching critical race theory. I’m learning about critical race theory in my doc program. That’s not what schools are teaching. Now, I’ve been rethinking that a little bit, because one, I think it’s not very helpful and, two, because it isn’t really accurate. And so it may be that schools are not teaching critical race theory. But while reading your book, I was really seeing what schools are teaching is what critical race theory helps us see, which is the ways in which racism is systemic or you used on page 66, the word systematized.
And so, I really appreciated the way you pulled out historical outlines, legal outcomes, your grandfather, I felt a real kinship to that, that’s my own working class grandfather’s story and his benefits from being in World War II. And you sort of lay out the way in which just like critical race theory would that the nature of racism in this country isn’t about a few bad apples, a few individuals who feel icky things. It’s really about legal precedent and systems at work to produce the outcomes that are racist. And I guess that’s what antiracist teachers are doing, right? They’re teaching accurate history that demonstrates the systemic nature of racism.
And so, I wanted to talk a little bit more than Christie just did about how teachers might continue to do this really important work while preparing themselves for challenges from – in Vermont, what’s happening is anti-CRT folks are calling in to school board meetings on Zoom from like states in the West, right, like – so how can we prepare ourselves for what’s going to happen? What we know is going to happen, because when you disrupt inequitable systems, people are going to push back. What might we do so that we’re ready for that? And Jess, I’m going to invite you to speak first.
Jess: Me? So, I think I said most of what I have to say about this earlier on that I don’t have a good, easy answer. And I think the truth is, I think sometimes educators do need permission to know that sometimes it is too much and there is a threat. And it is unsafe. And listen to that too, because I think part of why we need to rethink saying, well, schools aren’t teaching CRT is that it’s really dismissive, because it’s so beside the point. Nobody cares really if we’re teaching CRT or not. That was never the point, right?
So, I think we were also unprepared for that argument that we were like that was our first response, like, what you’re talking about? That’s – I don’t even know what that is. I’m not doing that. But again, that doesn’t matter, because it’s again that desire to protect, protect your children, protect their comfort, but also protect the systems you’ve benefited from. And so, I do want to say that I think sometimes it isn’t safe and to know that and trust that too. And then we build that collective resistance.
And I will also say this: before I dig in with my students to any conversations about racism or racist systems, we first celebrate the heck out of identity, and we celebrate who we all are as individuals and facets of identity, and we talk about the many parts of us. And we celebrate so much, because that means more than hanging a rainbow flag on my wall, right? That doesn’t create a safe space. What creates a safe space is naming identities. Being able to give space to conversations about all pieces of identity, modeling my own identity and talking about it.
And then once we celebrate identity, then we built on that foundation, because we have these sturdy legs to stand on them, right? And then we move into how does our identity impact how we move through the world? And I make it so clear that there are some parts of our identity that in some situations make it harder for us to move through the world. But that’s not because something is wrong with who you are, it’s because something is wrong with this world, right? So, I’m not saying that protects us. But I think it’s sort of contextualizes teaching about systems, because we look at it through a lens of who we are impacts how we move through the world, right?
And so, again, that’s not some magic solution, but it can help when we start there, it becomes a little bit more just what we do here, right? We just celebrate who we are and we are honest about who we are. It sometimes makes things easier and sometimes makes things harder and we’re going to look at all of that together and there’s space for all of that together here. So, it can be kind of a good place to go to when it’s starting to feel like, there is nothing I can say that’s going to not be attacked. And certainly, there will be people who attack but it can kind of cushion some of that.
Christie: I think, to what both of you are saying, I think one of the great lies that has been perpetuated is this idea that it’s deeply rooted in shame and guilt. And although there are places in the statuses that one can point to in which a person might be feeling shame and guilt. And also, I want a name that I can’t control how the curriculum I teach in my classroom lands on my students. And so, I aim for joy, I aim for opportunities, for lightness, for those breathing moments. And also, I know that the same lesson can strike five students in five entirely different ways. And I don’t want to pretend to control for that. But I do want to offer that I am willing to sit with any student and the authentic reactions that they’re having to what I’m teaching.
And I want to name that in their really beautiful text Radical Dharma which has been foundational to my own understanding. I just love the way in which Lama Rod Owens and Angel Kyodo Williams talks about the harms of white supremacy to all people across racial identity and society. And they name really beautifully that white supremacy harms all of us. It harms people at different rates and in different ways. So, I don’t want to pretend that the harms of white supremacy that I’ve experienced in my white body are the same harms of white supremacy that friends of the global majority experience. But I do want to name that I think there are opportunities and ways in which when white supremacy is named, and the harm of it is named that white students, young white people, white professionals, academics, educators, all of us can name the way that this has harmed us too, has harmed our relationship, has fractured relationship, both with people of the global majority and with one another, has harmed our familial lineages in the way in which our families have broken from their ancestry in order to meld itself into this project of whiteness that exists here in the United States.
And I think that there is a real beauty and and joy that can come in naming this universal harm that folks have experienced through this project of white supremacy. That is to say that critical race theory and this teaching is about restoring and repairing from that harm and moving toward a place of healing. And as they name in their text, a place of true collective liberation in which it’s about all of us in solidarity moving away from the harms of white supremacy that hurt all of us toward a more bright and beautiful future in which every person can be more whole in their bodies, and in their lives and in their relationships with others. And so I think my hope is that in teaching the truth, it’s actually a practice of healing as Shawn Ginwright might name. And that my hope is that it’s a practice of practicing liberation as Dr. Carla Shalaby might talk about. And so how is it that together as educators and young people, we can practice liberation in our classrooms toward that more whole and beautiful vision, which is not about loading people with guilt and shame, but instead is about actually moving away from those things that harm us most towards something that’s really going to be better for everybody.
Jeanie: My goodness. Thank you for this joyful and hopeful conversation about this amazing book that I think white folks should read, lots and lots and lots of white folks should read and my dog agrees. And we only just touched on a little bit of the text. There are so many more. I’ve got all these like bookmarks in here where I wanted to quote other sections. Christie’s got a gazillion post it notes. We’re only just getting started. And yet this feels like the perfect place to end. Christie, Jess, Brendan, thank you so much for joining me to talk about this. I so appreciate it. And Charlie does, too.
Jess: Thank you for having us. This was a soul-filling conversation.
Brendan: This is fantastic. Thanks so much to all of you. This is great.
Christie: Thank you, Jeanie. Thank you, Charlie.
Jeanie: I’m Jeanie. And this has been an episode of #vtedReads talking about what Vermont’s educators and students are reading. Thank you to Brendan Kieley. Did I do that right?
Brendan: Yes, thank you. Thank you so much.
Jeanie: Jess Lifshitz and Christie Nold for appearing on the show and talking with me about The Other Talk. If you’re looking for a copy of The Other Talk, check your local library. Thanks to our Audio Engineer Audrey Homan and to Life LeGeros and Rachel Mark for their podcast support. To find out more about Vermont Ed Reads including past episodes, upcoming guests and a whole lot more, you can visit vtedreads.tarrantinstitute.org. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram @vtedreads. This podcast is a project of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont.
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This is good way to share feelings and their ideas, it work also. Thank you !!!