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Who Am I Writing For?
I am writing this blog post for the earlier version of myself who naively thought that “not seeing color” was a sufficient social justice perspective and wishes he could have realized how inadequate that was. I’m also writing this for other white people who see the injustice in the world and want to do more.

I am not an authority on social justice. What I’ve written has been influenced by so many people, but much of it can be traced back to Val Brown and the #ClearTheAir movement she founded.

 

How I Began To See System Racism
I listened to the book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo in early 2019 as part of my desire to better align the values I claim to have with my actions. I learned about the book from the recommended readings of the #ClearTheAir chats on Twitter (which I highly recommend checking out if you want to learn more about social justice). I gained a lot of perspective from the book including how even though I did not create the structures that privilege white people*, I still benefit from them and if I truly believe in equality, it’s my responsibility to help level the playing field.

My favorite part though was Marilyn Frye’s metaphor about how a birdcage represents oppression. It blew me away at how elegantly it helped me understand structures like systemic racism, which was a term I had heard but did not understand.

The book has a slightly different version of the metaphor below, but here’s what Frye shared in her book Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory. Please read it and then continue below.
 

Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this [narrow] focus, you could look at that one wire, up and down the length of it, and be unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted to go somewhere. Furthermore, even if, one day at a time, you [closely] inspected each wire, you still could not see why a bird would have trouble going past the wires to get anywhere. There is no physical property of any one wire, nothing that the closest scrutiny could discover, that will reveal how a bird could be inhibited or harmed by it except in the most accidental way. It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere; and then you will see it in a moment. It will require no great subtlety of mental powers. It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon.

 
Let’s think about this metaphor through the context of systemic racism. Each wire represents a single structure that hinders people of color. To illustrate what I mean, here are just two examples of wires:
 

Hair Styles
Imagine being discriminated against for your hairstyle. I can’t imagine someone coming up to me and telling me that they won’t hire me because of my hairstyle. Yet, it’s so much more common for black people that California had to pass a law prohibiting this kind of discrimination. From the article:
 

“However, there are still far too many cases of black employees and applicants denied employment or promotion — even terminated — because of the way they choose to wear their hair,” she said. “I have heard far too many reports of black children humiliated and sent home from school because their natural hair was deemed unruly or a distraction to others.”

 
Still think it’s hypothetical? What about this time when a high school wrestler was forced to cut his hair at the wrestling match if he wanted to participate. This is one wire.
 

Coffee Shops
I cannot count how many hours I’ve spent sitting at coffee shops, working on my computer. I also don’t drink coffee. I just sit there and use their space, electricity, and WiFi. So, when I saw that two black men were arrested for waiting for someone they were meeting at a Starbucks it shocked me. From the article:
 

The men had initially asked to use the bathroom at the Starbucks on April 12 as they waited for a business meeting, but were told it was for paying customers only. They then occupied a table without making a purchase, which many observers have noted is a common occurrence at the franchise’s locations.
 
Within minutes of them arriving, a manager called police after the men declined to leave the premises because, they said, they were waiting for their acquaintance.

 
I’ve done this same thing so many times, and I realized that it would never happen to me because of my skin color. This is another wire.

If there were just a dozen of these wires, maybe some birds could escape. Sadly, there are more wires than I can count and as a white male I have come to realize that just because I can’t see the wires, it doesn’t mean they’re not there. I know that for myself, I’ve had a hard time grasping systemic racism because I only saw the obvious wires and examined them one at a time.

If you see yourself as an ally, then I encourage you to take a step back, examine all the wires you’re aware of, and try to learn as much as possible about the wires you haven’t noticed yet. The more we’re aware of them, the more opportunities we’ll have to dismantle them.
 

Next Steps
You might be wondering what I plan to do next or, similarly, what you could do. Personally, it’s taken me decades to realize how biased my understanding of history has been. So, I plan to do more learning and listening.

If you’re looking to learn more, here’s what I recommend:

  • Pick a book from the #ClearTheAir discussion. This is where I learned about White Fragility and White Rage by Carol Anderson. White Rage was a profound, heavy, and eye-opening read. It broke down many of the naive understandings that I had somehow believed without questioning and made me want to learn more.
  • Read a blog post from the #31DaysIBPOC series where educators of color share their experiences. In particular, I really enjoyed this one from Marian Dingle and this one from Hema Khodai.
  • Join a #ClearTheAir Twitter chat which have showed me how different my experiences are.

 
Here are some powerful shows I’ve watched that have provided a lot of perspective:

  • When They See Us – This shook me to the core. It took me multiple sittings to get through the first episode. It hits even harder when you realize that similar false imprisonments have happened many other times.
  • 13th – I had no idea that the 13th amendment could be used to turn prisons into a form of slavery. Very humbling to realize that the legal system is not nearly as fair as I thought it was.
  • The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross with Henry Louis Gates Jr. – This six episode series helped me learn so much about the history of African-Americans.
  • Ken Burn’s The West – While this documentary covers many topics, it also shows how brutally Native Americans were treated as white people migrated west.

 
I’ve also learned so much by making more real friendships with people of color and just listening. I’m not saying that once you have a friend who’s a person of color, that you’ve done enough. It’s just the beginning. I really had no clue what people whose skin color was not like mine were going through. Many of my friends have endured hardships I couldn’t even imagine. By hearing their stories, it helps me sympathize and better see how the wires form the cage. They also call me out when I mess up. I appreciate this because it means that they believe that taking the time to help me understand is worth it.

Finally, I want to thank Lybrya Kebreab, Marian Dingle, and Kris Childs for their friendship and for making time to help me strengthen and solidify my writing.

 

P.S. Why Am I Writing This?
If you’re a long time reader of my blog, you might be wondering why I’m talking about systemic racism and not just sticking to math. The reality is that the more I learn about how common injustices are, the more I realize that I cannot sit back and do nothing.

It reminds me of the quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” So, I’m writing this post for anyone who, like me, considered themselves an ally, only to realize that they were not doing enough.

I thought I was doing enough by finding ways to support others. But I’ve come to realize that I was wrong. Looking at the image below may make you feel uncomfortable because like me, you may not want to think you are the least bit racist.

However, when I first started taking social justice seriously, I was probably at “There is only one race, the human race” on the spectrum. I didn’t realize that my own personal beliefs did not change the reality that people of color had experiences that were far different than my own. I’m now working hard on moving towards the right on this spectrum. I am definitely not all the way there, but I’m now trying to be anti-racist by calling out racism and doing what I can to mitigate it.

To be clear, this blog post has pushed me far outside of my comfort zone, but I think that’s part of the point. As a white man, I have the privilege of choosing whether or not I want to push back against racism. For people of color, they don’t get that choice.

I do not claim to have it all figured out and I’m certain I’ll later realize I’ve said something poorly in this post. I’ve also tried just waiting for things to get better and that’s not working either. So, thank you in advance for calling me on anything I got wrong and for helping me grow even more.


 

* Don't Think White Privilege Exists?
If you disagree with me and believe that everyone already has a level playing field and that structures which benefit white people don’t exist, then please consider this thought experiment that I learned about when Kory Graham shared a Twitter thread from Val Brown. In her thread, she shared a portion of an essay written by Gloria Ladson-Billings who describes an exercise Andrew Hacker ran on his college students in 1992. Here’s a portion of what she shared:

Ladson-Billings wrote:

Hacker uses a parable to illustrate that although the students insist that “in this day and age, things are better for Blacks” (p. 31), none of them would want to change places with African Americans. When asked what amount of compensation they would seek if they were forced to “become Black,” the students “seemed to feel that it would not be out of place to ask for $50 million, or $1 million for each coming Black year” (p. 32).

 
Hacker added:

And this calcualtion conveys, as well as anything, the value that white people place on their own skins. Indeed, to be white is to possess a gift whose value can be appreciated only after it has been taken away. And why ask so large a sum? …. The money would be used, as best it could, to buy protection from the discriminations and dangers white people know they would face once they were perceived to be black. (p 32)

 
Think about what this means! First, if you ever wanted to quantify how much white people value being white and not black, then here you go. If this data is representative of white people as a whole, then saying that there is no privilege to being white is just lip service. You’d expect this amount to be $0 if the people surveyed felt their skin color provided no value. Second, how bad were things for Black people if things are better than they used to be and still they’d want millions!


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7 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing your perspective. Until a critical mass of white allies step up and step into this work, nothing will change. I highly recommend the podcast Teaching While White. I also recommend finding other white people who are committed to anti racist activism and (in accountability to your colleagues of color) form an affinity space working group where you can learn and take actions together. In my group we have been studying White Supremacy Culture, and trying to identify specific examples of how this worldview is being supported by the systems in our classrooms and our school. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.

    • Thank you for this actionable advice Jen. Having additional support from people who are already doing the work is very important.

  2. Thank you for posting this. I can relate to your journey a lot with my experiences. Counterstories (there’s books about these) have helped me to change the narrative I used to tell myself. I’ve been talking a lot with teachers about creating brave spaces, so that we can do the work on educating ourselves more in critical social justice practices together (CRT is another term in many articles I’ve read). So many are hesitant, and fearful of “getting political” when the word social justice comes up in our discussions and activities. Do you have advice for leading a group of teachers in this work of creating more equitable learning opportunities for our students and teaching through a social justice lens? This is one of our math focuses in my year long PD group.

    • Hi Monica. I should begin by restating that I’m definitely not an expert in any of this.

      Honestly, it’s taken me years just to get here. There have been multiple public and private call outs that made me really uncomfortable. I enjoyed none of them but they were all important wake up calls that forced me to realize that what I was doing was not working.

      I’ve had to retrain myself to go from getting defensive and frustrated to asking myself, “What if I’m wrong about what they’re upset about?” That in itself has taken a long time to do.

      Reading White Rage and listening to the stories of people of color helped humanize what’s been happening and helped me realize how much information I was missing in what I thought was the single authentic history of the US.

      Anything in the Next Steps section of this blog post would also be worth checking out, especially the #ClearTheAir chats and readings.

      Hope this helps.

  3. Thanks for sharing! I haven been reading about this over the past year and it is difficult to understand how people think/behave the way they do and hard to feel helpless. Thanks for the reading suggestions! I also debate how I can add conversation into the lessons without either getting fired, causing students to feel uncomfortable, discriminated etc. but I think it is important to talk about it.

    • It’s been a very complex journey for me, so I won’t claim to not have experienced some of the feelings you described. I went through a denial period where I thought it was enough to treat people equally. I tried to hide away the reality that regardless of how I treat people of color, they have an experience that’s different than mine… and me ignoring that reality helps no one but myself.

      It’s been hard for me to get to the place where I could talk about this publicly. I think part of it is that I want to be liked and don’t want to rock the boat. Part of it was because I thought that I could claim “I just talk about math” and then have a pass to avoid all of this.

      What eventually happened though was I made enough friendships and learned enough history to realize that I could no longer respect myself if I did nothing.

      I’m sure there are things I could have done better but I hope that people will see that I have genuine intentions and continue to invest time to help me when I mess up.

  4. Thank you for this. I teach in a predominantly Mexican school which changes my perspectives and experiences (I am white). I am so glad to see how many more people are taking note of the systemic issues our students face. We have many undocumented students, and clear plans for how we can support them. But would we if there were only a few? Those students would feel so much more afraid and alone, and I’m sure at most schools they do.

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