cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Friday, August 5, 2016

#MTBoSBlaugust 3 - The Bumper Car Theory of Anti-Racist Training for Teachers and Staff

This one is challenging to write because I want to honor all appropriate boundaries while inquiring into my own personal experience of the process.

This next week, during our whole-school PD on Wednesday, we are embarking on our first year of a multi-year program of anti-racist training for teachers and staff. Earlier this summer, I was one of 25 teachers and staff from our school who attended the initial training, and naturally, nothing went as planned. Does it ever? Heavy Sigh. So this morning, we did our reset and met about our plan to do this training with our whole school.

The enterprise of confronting privilege to teach and learn about privilege is daunting, and it is unavoidable that many people who encounter this work will quickly get rubbed raw. In some ways, that is by design. You can't remain comfortable while digging into uncomfortable territory. But at the same time, conceiving the work merely as a project of "disruption" dishonors the good will and long-term focus of individuals who have come together on their own out of their own deep-rooted belief that we need to do better, both for our students and for ourselves.

So you can see how it's a complicated and messy process to get started.

Your face here
What I am coming to understand about it all is this: in order to have courageous conversations about race, we need to learn how to see our own personal invisible beliefs. These are hard to see because they are by nature invisible. They are blind spots. For example, as a high-status, highly educated white teacher, I tend to feel confident in sharing my views publicly; but at the same time, I struggle to keep my passion and confidence from appearing as arrogance to those with different patterns of privilege. And I'm just one individual teacher in a very large faculty. I'm sure that other teachers struggle to notice their own patterns of privilege. Plus the nature of the dominant culture in our school is unusual and complex. So all in all, learning to see the individual and collective belief systems and blind spots is going to be a real challenge. We are going to need to spend a lot of time in a space of collective and individual not-knowing, together. And I fully expect that process to be uncomfortable.

What strikes me most is that this whole process is like being in racial identity bumper cars. Like at a carnival. We need to expect to be disturbed and surprised and confused as we discover how other drivers in their own identity bumper cars interpret and experience life from their own points of view, because everybody is so certain that their own personal bumper car point of view is clear-seeing and constructive and intentional. But every time the ride starts up, whenever you try to steer your own bumper car, you cannot help but crash into other people's bumper cars. So the process of investigation is complicated because there is no way to step outside of the bumper car bumping arena while the inquiry is ongoing.

From the 30,000-foot perspective, I can see that the bumper car system is designed to thwart objectivity. In their own bumper car ride, nobody is 100% in control of their own bumper car. We all have our own projections and privilege and beliefs that we project onto every other driver who crashes into us. If you consider how the bumper cars are designed, you may understand logically that the bumping is unavoidable. But after you've been in the arena for a little while, trying to steer your own car for a bit, it becomes hard not to take things personally. It becomes impossible to avoid lapsing into the belief that other drivers are intentionally crashing into you to push you off course.

I think this model is especially true when you've got a large room full of public school educators — smart, highly educated, open-hearted people who do what they do out of dedication to learning and to contributing to the common good. The moment you start to prod individual teachers into seeing how they benefit from various networks of privilege, things get painful. People shut down or break down. And I've never yet seen it handled well. In our culture, teaching is already pre-constructed as a "Wretched of the Earth"-level of profession. Poorly paid, micro-managed, and bullied by corporate reformers and unelected politicians. What could possibly go wrong when you try to confront public school teachers about privilege?

So I think it is going to take a certain gentleness, determination, and persistence to help a whole faculty to see how we as individuals benefit from different forms and degrees of privilege, both in our school culture and in our society. It is also going to take chocolate and a whole lot of radically appropriate self-care. I am hopeful in the long term that we will make progress, but I suspect that in the near term, things could get messy. Still, I remain optimistic and curious to see how things unfold.


  1. Wow. Not a typical PD day... Sounds scary as hell... But think of the potential for growth. Deep learning is uncomfortable...change is never easy. Staff happy hour afterwards?

    1. One of my Zen teachers used to say, "Take one step off a hundred-foot pole." I think it's something like that.

      - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)