Anti-racism is a hard topic to explore. I believe this is because many of us were taught to learn in ways that don’t support the creative and reflective thinking that anti-racism requires. On my own journey, I have uncovered some assumptions that have kept me from thinking in this way, and I hope that naming my own assumptions about learning that I grew up with is helpful for others as well. How do the systems we are required to learn and teach within impact how we are able to learn and teach, even outside of these systems?
Learning Assumptions: Learning about the world vs. about myself. Finding the answer vs. exploring.
I grew up in Texas public education, from kindergarten through my undergrad years. During my public education, I was taught extensively about how to learn facts about the world, and very little about how to explore and learn about myself. As a white man, there are particular parts of the anti-racist learning experience that are difficult for me because of how I learned how to learn growing up. What makes anti-racism difficult for me is that it is not just a subject to learn about, and it is not a topic on which someone else can evaluate my progress for me. Anti-racist learning requires that each of us look inside our own bodies and minds, to get curious about what is happening there, ask why, and to keep looking. I didn’t learn these skills during my Kindergarten through undergrad public education. Anti-racist learning and education doesn’t have a defined end point of success or a universal right answer, the way learning a topic in math or science might, and it can’t be graded the way my previous classroom experiences were graded. It requires a willingness to explore and not know where that exploration may go, and to keep exploring anyway, even if no one else is asking us to.
Learning Assumptions: Right answers, and failure/punishment
Growing up, I learned how to find the right answers, and knew that there would be consequences if I didn’t. I learned hard subjects in school by focusing as much energy as I could on learning about those subjects. Find books, find websites, find people who are experts, that was the way to learn everything. I learned how to do that kind of learning really well. The right answer was somewhere in the book, or somewhere online, or my teacher had the answer. Standardized tests told me whether I achieved my learning, and in the absence of standardized tests, teachers took on the task of evaluating me, deciding whether or not I had learned well enough (I had amazing teachers who gave us much more ownership in our learning than simply grading us, and who cared for and engaged us far beyond what the school could ask for. But in the end, my teachers were also still expected by the school to provide the last judgment on my progress). My experience was also connected to what happened when I didn’t learn well. Teachers were expected to give us bad grades if we didn’t learn well enough, and our grades were attached to our worthiness in class ranking systems and for further education and job opportunities. I was conditioned by our learning system to believe that learning meant getting the right answers, and that a failure to learn those right answers would harm me. I believed this even when I had safe, caring, and talented teachers in my classrooms. Learning was all about finding answers, and came with the risk of punishment. This turned out not to be a helpful “norm” for me to be stuck with while exploring anti-racism, because anti-racist learning doesn’t involve right answers or punishment.
Learning Assumptions: Who is responsible for our learning
Ultimately when it comes to anti-racism learning, we are responsible for our own learning. This makes things more challenging, because unlike the knowledge we gain in grade school, anti-racist learning is a subject and experience that can’t easily be transferred as knowledge from one person to another. Every unique aspect of who we are as individuals requires a different kind of reflection and work. Unlike my time in the classroom, there is no one-size-fits-all worksheet that someone can give us that tells us what to do next. Even among white men, I can’t tell another white man what his next step should be, but we’ve been taught during our time in school that someone else should always be able to tell us what’s next. Someone can give us advice based on their experience with anti-racism work, but it’s up to us to make a choice. It’s hard for me to break out of the expectation that it’s someone else’s job to give me the next thing to learn, and to judge whether I have learned it.
Learning Assumptions: Meeting objectives vs creativity and relationships
Another difficulty with respect to how I was taught to learn growing up is that antiracism learning requires both expansive creativity and detailed attentiveness to our relationships with others, both skills that our culture often dismisses in education after elementary school. When we uncover racist behaviors in ourselves that we absorbed growing up, we have to create a new behavior for ourselves in order to have other options, and it is typically a creation that we have to make for ourselves and that someone else can’t give to us. To even notice the impact of racism, we have to be alert to our relationships. I could have made it through my entire K-12 and even undergraduate education with little investment in attention to creativity or relationships, but for antiracist learning and journeying, creativity and attentiveness to relationships are required.
When I think back, most of my learning seemed to be decided for me in grade school and undergrad. It seemed normal and made sense at the time, that someone older and more experienced than me should tell me what topics to learn, and judge me based on whether I had learned it or not, while I made the occasional decision about what “track” I would take. That kind of learning has its benefits. I am a capable engineer today because of that kind of learning. While I am grateful for that, I am also curious about the skills I didn’t learn. What did learning that way for 17 years teach me, and what didn’t it teach me?
Learning Assumptions: Fear-driven avoidance of punishment
I spent 17 years associating learning with an avoidance of punishment. Learn well, and get a good grade. Learn poorly, and get a bad grade, fail, be identified as a “problem”, struggle to get a good job, struggle to survive. I was graded very well as a student, but I think I did a lot of learning out of fear, which turned out to build bad habits that don’t transfer well to antiracism learning. Fear does not teach growth very well, and maybe not at all.
Learning Assumptions: Producing Together vs Growing Together
The majority of my education involved proving that I learned by producing something for someone else, and then being individually rewarded for what I produced. This was done either through individual work, or group work that required us to cooperate as a team to complete a project, for which we would be individually rewarded with grades. The outcome was always the production of something, and rarely if ever involved a change in myself or the group. Anti-racism education on the other hand benefits from group experiences where the goal is to have conditions for growth and mutual learning experiences from one another. Rather than focusing on producing a “thing”, anti-racism learning encourages behavioral change grounded in learning together in community, and changing and growing together in community.
Some foundations of Texas Public Education, and clues about the assumptions I grew up with:
In the State of Texas, we have the TEKS learning objectives that determine what students will learn. When I look at the current TEKS learning objectives, I see a task list of objectives to learn, similar to what was taught during my years in high school. The state took responsibility for deciding what I needed to learn, leaving me able to take little to no responsibility for deciding what to learn for myself. (https://tea.texas.gov/sites/default/files/ch112c.pdf )
Texas also has a teaching pedagogy, which is essentially a policy that outlines what teachers are responsible for in public schools in Texas. Looking at the teaching pedagogy in Texas (https://texreg.sos.state.tx.us/public/readtac$ext.TacPage?sl=R&app=9&p_dir=&p_rloc=&p_tloc=&p_ploc=&pg=1&p_tac=&ti=19&pt=7&ch=235&rl=61 ), it is considered to be the teachers’ job to ensure that students learn. While my teachers all put in the extra effort to empower their students far beyond the basic requirements in the policy, the spirit of the policy still seeped through into my day to day experience of school. It was the teacher’s job, not the student’s job, to make sure learning happened. Our educational system encouraged our teachers to find ways to give knowledge to us, rather than focusing on finding ways to help students prepare themselves to pull that knowledge in.
Some Anti-racism education concepts:
Exploring anti-racism education, which is fundamentally my own responsibility and is focused on personal growth and change, is a hard shift.
Consider some of the ways that anti-racist learning is encouraged. In this article by the National Equity Project (https://www.nationalequityproject.org/frameworks/implicit-bias-structural-racialization), the very first thing they encourage learners to do is to become aware of their own selves and their own way of viewing the world, and to hold that awareness of self through the learning process.
In Robin DiAngelo’s “Antiracist Education and the Road Ahead”, she points out that we have to spend time learning how we were socialized, and examine our own beliefs and views. Contrast these ideas about self awareness with a typical public education setting, where we learn to examine what is happening outside of us rather than what is happening within us.
In this National Equity Project article (https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5e32157bff63c7446f3f1529/t/5f1739965f252b1d45f0cd4f/1595357599748/Lens-of-Systemic-Oppression.pdf), they explain a concept of critical judgement, where it is assumed that there will be no “right” answer, but there is an important process of questioning and exploring. In my public education experience, there was always a right answer. I didn’t learn how to be ok with there not being a right answer.
And as Robin DiAngelo points out in Nothing to Add (https://robindiangelo.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Nothing-to-Add-Published.pdf), anti-racism learning includes a behavioral change component. For those of us who grew up with learning styles where the ultimate outcome of learning was to do well on a test and had nothing to do with behavior, this can be a very difficult change.
As I compare my own experience in public education with my relatively short time exploring antiracism education, and as I think about what the folks who have been doing this work for a long time are saying, I’ve found some patterns that are helpful for me to avoid, and some that are helpful to shift into:
Punishment vs growth: I was conditioned growing up to believe that all learning required taking a risk to be punished for not learning well enough or not learning fast enough. Instead, I can remember that antiracism learning is focused on growth, not punishment for failing to “get it”.
Exterior learning vs internal learning: I was conditioned growing up to be an excellent learner about the world around me, and to think that this is how all learning works. Instead, I can remember that the learning involved in anti-racism requires learning about the world around me AND learning about myself.
Endpoint vs Journey: I was conditioned growing up to believe that it was possible to “finish” all educational units or topics once I understood all the relevant knowledge. Instead, I can remember that in anti-racism learning there is no established end point or even a “right” answer, but there is progress towards something new.
Curriculum vs Curiosity: I was conditioned growing up to believe that education only happens when I learn a curriculum that someone else created for me to learn. Instead, I can remember that anti-racism learning involves not only listening to what others are asking us to learn, but taking personal responsibility to seek out those new viewpoints and next steps for ourselves, and to continually be curious about our own learning experiences.
Learning objectives vs relationships: I was conditioned growing up to believe that if I met the learning objectives, I had done everything I needed to do, and that relationships were just incidental. Instead, I can remember that paying attention to my relationships gives me insight into how my antiracism development impacts myself and those around me.
Proving knowledge vs growing behavior: I was conditioned growing up to believe that the only important result of my education could be measured by a test and by displaying my knowledge to others. Instead, I can remember that antiracism education results in a change in my behavior that allows for new growth, and I can pay attention to my own behavior for clues about my own growth.
Individual accomplishment vs Community support: I was conditioned growing up to believe that the only important outcome in my education was my own graded accomplishments and the work I put in to get there. Instead, I can remember that learning and growing in community with others is a strategy for anti-racist education, and also a behavior change that supports further antiracism education.
When I fall into the conditioned ways of learning that I used for 17 years, or when I see others fall into them, I try to remember that I and others around me are not just struggling with anti-racism education. We’re struggling with the conditioning that keeps us from even engaging in anti-racism education in the first place.
It can be frustrating because the models we are conditioned to learn with are often nearly invisible, and we rarely get external validation for challenging those models. But every time we notice the learning models we were conditioned with and decide to try something different, we are actually taking a step that will allow us to engage in anti-racism learning and growth that will make our communities vibrant and new.
What assumptions have I been taught to accept about how learning works? What is the cost of not questioning the assumptions I grew up with? These are the questions I’m curious about right now on my own antiracism education journey, and I hope folks reading have found their own questions to be curious about as well.
*A note on resources that have helped me develop my own journey:
I’ve benefited from many resources that other folks have created, which have helped me to think and learn in new ways. There are more than I can list, but some of them are below:
I started early with How to Be an Antiracist (by Ibram X. Kendi), and White Fragility (by Robin DiAngelo). For where I was at the time, both books helped me better see how behaviors relate to racism and what those behaviors look like, but I was still having trouble understanding why those behaviors were happening, and without a “why” I didn’t know where else to go. The resources below helped me to better understand the “why”, without which I don’t think I would have been able to do much with the “what”.
My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies - by Resmaa Menakem - Helped me to shift my thinking away from “solving” racism to understanding the emotional frames of how racism continues to shape all of us, and how to become aware of and address the emotional barriers that keep racism in place in ourselves and our communities.
Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive - by Marc Brackett - Helped me to gain a greater understanding of how our everyday emotions impact every moment of our lives whether we acknowledge them or not, and how we can work with our emotions rather than avoid them. This is not a book specifically about anti-racism, but for me it was foundational for understanding racism.
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma - by Bessel van der Kolk - This book is also not specifically about anti-racism, but helped me to better understand how emotional trauma (which I believe everyone experiences in different forms in a culture that allows racism to continue) can cause us to behave in ways that don’t seem to be logical.
Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds - by adrienne maree brown - Gave me examples of collaborative leadership and change that don’t depend on waiting for hierarchical organizations or authority figures to take action, and also specifically addresses anti-racist change. This painted a picture for me of how we can learn and change together even if no one has an “answer”.
White Supremacy Culture - by Tema Okun - Clearly identifies harmful practices that often show up in our culture, and identifies learning and behavioral practices to support change. The website can be found at https://www.whitesupremacyculture.info/
All About Love: New Visions - by bell hooks - Paints a picture for me of what an expansively loving culture could look like, and the assumptions and behaviors that often keep us from that vision.
Rising out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist - by Eli Saslow - This book, which follows the story of a man who no longer identifies as a white nationalist, helped me to understand that information about racism and harm is often not enough to “learn” anti-racism. The emotional connections born out of relationships, and the resulting relational learning, can be greater teachers than facts and statistics about racism, even for folks who are comfortable with and talented at information-based learning.
Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management - by Caitlin Rosenthal - While reading this historical examination of the history of plantation and slave labor accounting and management practices in the United States, I saw the ties to how racial minorities and other populations are taken advantage of today using similar practices which are now considered normal. This highlighted for me that when we follow the accepted norms for managing organizations (including those organizations that support our education), it is very easy to fall into patterns that were originally designed to hurt people.
Podcast - Beyond the Womanist Classroom with Dr. Mitzi Smith - Dr. Smith brings a black feminist lens to bible scholarship. Her leadership in challenging racist and sexist educational and cultural norms both in theological interpretation and in academia has been a refreshing reminder to me that we don’t have to keep learning and educating in the same way just because it’s currently being done that way. (https://mitzijsmith.net/beyond-the-womanist-classroom-podcast/)