I get asked a lot of questions lately, but sometimes I find people don’t want to hear my answers. The purpose of the question, then, is perhaps to provoke, not actually have a dialogue. As I urged in my last article, “Keep Asking Why: Top 10 Books To Help You Understand Systemic Racism,” I implore you not to assume you know, but to constantly question, search for the truth, and listen to the words of others. In my search for truth, I continue to push myself through an unending journey of understanding the words of others. One of the greatest lessons I have learned is to stop trying to have conversations akin to a ping-pong match, but rather engage in true dialogue.
To better understand how to do this, I would highly recommend:
1. On Dialogue by David Bohm
From the book:
“each person does not attempt to make common certain ideas or items of information that are already known to him. Rather, it may be said that two people are making something in common i.e.creating something new together.”
“In a dialogue, however, nobody is trying to win.”
“That’s the way democracy is supposed to work, but it hasn’t.”
I also believe that you can be part of a failing system and want to be on the side of change. Our educational system is failing. I am a teacher within that system. I stand on the side of change because I can see the results of our failure. Students of color do not have the same opportunity in this system and that is simply and irrevocably wrong. I will no longer stand by and watch that happen. And for the mere fact that so many people feel anger when confronted with these failing systems, it makes me realize again that the educational system failed them as well. We did not teach them the breadth of history; only the parts we thought they wanted to hear. We did not teach them how to effectively dialogue about it; especially how to search for truth. And we did not teach them the value of diverging perspectives. For this, I recommend:
2. The New York Times podcast episode “America’s Education Problem.” You can read the transcript here.
From the podcast: “only 14 percent of American students could distinguish, reliably, between fact and opinion.”
In that same vein, I recently have been asked, “As a history teacher, how do you feel about people tearing down history?” I find this question fascinating as our understanding of what is history is likely different. It is not convenient for a person to learn the confederacy only lasted five years. They do not want to hear the truth about Christopher Columbus, his role in “discovering” America, and the genocide to which he contributed, because then there might be one less holiday. Change is not easy for most adults. The imperfections of humanity is another dialogue about which people do not like to dive. We must heroify or vilify and there is no in between. An interesting, but somewhat controversial recommendation here would be:
3. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
From the book: “History is important. If you don’t know history it is as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, anybody up there in a position of power can tell you anything, and you have no way of checking up on it.”
As in any strong dialogue, there are imperfections to this version of history. Many critiques have been written about Zinn and his publications. One, you may want to look at (only after reading Zinn’s book), would be the following article:
4. “Zinn’s influential history textbook has problems, says Stanford education expert”
I cannot let this go without mentioning the latest bit of history that people are horrified to be “losing”: Our celebration of the confederacy, which lasted only five years, yet people do not question its stronghold in our culture. As with many of these arguments, I question why and urge you to do the same.
I would recommend listening to:
5. The Bad Ideas podcast episode “The Lost Cause of the Confederacy History as Written by the Losers”
If it isn’t the loss of the confederacy pulling for my attention, it’s the argument about images of people of color being removed from iconic products. “I would be proud to have my image on ____________, why are people making such a big deal out of this?” There are plenty of families, descendents of the people who represent these images who are also pushing back. Could you have named those families before now? If not, I urge you to learn about them, celebrate them, as their families continue to hope. Make changes to better represent what these families believe they should represent. But, learn about why those images should have no place in our society today. To better understand why, listen to:
6. The Ted Radio Hour podcast called “Ingrained Injustice”
From the podcast: “It’s impossible to look at oppression as something that only has an effect on one group of people”
Lastly, people ask me about the protests that are happening today. The idea of police brutality against black bodies and the dichotomy that exists between knowing “good cops” and believing that the system can’t be broken. People ask how I can be “ok” with the riots happening around these peaceful protests. To all of these questions, I respond like this. I am a good teacher in a broken system. There are good cops in this broken system. Many of whom stood with protesters, have acknowledged and participated in training to inhibit implicit bias. We can be good and still know that changes must be made. We can also be good, and not. To that end, no one is condoning riots or senseless violence or crime that have shadowed the protests. Instead, I challenge you to be smarter than the shadows. They are there for a reason. Look into the long history that has led us to this moment. For that, I recommend:
7. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
If you don’t feel like reading the entire book, this is a decent summary of Alexander’s research here.
From the book: “African Americans are not significantly more likely to use or sell prohibited drugs than whites, but they are made criminals at drastically higher rates for precisely the same conduct.”
If you’d prefer a podcast, take a listen to:
8. The Throughline podcast “American Police” (The transcript is included here, too)
From the podcast: “One of the really powerful expressions of how important policing and punishment were in the conception of the end of slavery was that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery except as punishment for crime. So in some ways, the genius of the former Confederate states was to say, oh, well, if all we need to do is make them criminals and they can be put back in slavery, well, then that’s what we’ll do. And that’s exactly what the black codes set out to do. The black codes, for all intents and purposes, criminalized every form of African American freedom and mobility, political power, economic power, except the one thing it didn’t criminalize was the right to work for a white man on a white man’s terms.”
Ok, I know that is a lot for now. And this is borne out of my own inability to reference these sources quickly enough when asked these questions. All I ask is that as you take a moment to celebrate our country’s revolution this year, think about how we got there. If you were taught that it was a peaceful transition to “greatness”, then your education failed you. Sometimes you have to fight for it. Most importantly, you have to understand it by listening to the words of others.
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