More than Comfortable with the Discomfort (BP Letter #2)

Summer Letter #2 
June 17, 2020
Dear bp,

Thanks for your letter.

I found reassurance in it. Not that my reassurance/comfort is what I’m hoping to gain here, but it’s good to be bolstered to be brave. (Reminder to myself: TAKE RISKS, MAKE MISTAKES, LEARN, AND KEEP GOING.)

Anyways, I have always been in awe of what you do in your classroom, especially with your lens on social justice. You make it look easy. Reading you say that it has been challenging reminds me that it is not.

As you know, I love to plan. I live my life two-paces (or more) ahead on a regular basis. (This is not something I suggest, and I am working on slowing it down.) I relate strongly to, “I often feel that I need to know exactly what I’m going to say and how I’m going to say it. I have to control the conversation.“ With that acknowledged, it is easier to let go of it. Ha, after writing that sentence my brain just started writing the intro I would say to students. (“I am not in charge of this conversation, you are. ”) Two paces ahead. Again. Ugh.

Thank you for pushing me to be better. Thank you for writing me. Thank you for inspiring me. This helps. It helps keep me moving. It helps me see a path forward.

I’m committed to...
  • reading White Fragility and 
  • Crest of the Peacock and 
  • whatever other book our Anti Racist school book club chooses. 
  • I’m 1/3 of the way through So You Want To Talk about Race 
  • I watched everything I could find on the Exonerated Five in the past week - “When They See Us” plus the director interview by Oprah, plus the previous Ken Burn’s documentary. 
  • I have 13th on my re-watch list, and many more.
 I realize it is truly a privilege to educate myself about racism rather than experience it. I feel like I am behind and am rushing to catch up. On that note, I'm not sure why I haven't been doing this more urgently sooner.  I’ve worn a “Black Lives Matter” bracelet for 3 plus years now. Part of why I wear it is to remind me to speak up. I think I became complacent. I'm so mad at myself for that.  I knew better, and I know better.
Being put in “positions of racial discomfort” is something I’ve been thinking about too. When I think about my answers to the “Why Me?” and “Why Now?” questions we discussed in our school SRJ (Social and Racial Justice) group. When I think about what in my past has led me here. One thing I think about is a “Summer Bridge” program I participated in during 5th and 6th grade.

I grew up on Long Island, one of the most highly segregated places in the US. My school was 98% white (by my recollection). In 4th grade, this program came to our school seeking kids to be part of their “Summer Bridge” program — it wasn’t summer school to catch up, it was summer school to get ahead. Long story short, I jumped at this. I was one of 2 students from my school who did the program. At Summer Bridge, for the first time in my life,  I was surrounded by non-white kids. I often wonder what the unspoken goals of this program was, if any part of it was explicitly to create opportunity for kids to socialize with kids of other races. I remember as a 10-ish year old noting the new racial make up of my peers. I wonder for how long I noticed it. At some point I saw what was always true, kids were just kids.

(Side note: I should ask my parents what their take was. It is a proud family anecdote for me that my dad's family helped push for Civil Rights — One example, as a toddler my grandparents put my dad in a kiddy pool with a child of color, to protest for the desegregation of public pools. This history is not so long ago. There is MUCH more to be said here, and I also should acknowledge that my family is not always something I am always proud of in terms of reaching for social justice. There are biases  I inherited and need to work on. There are many mistakes I personally have made. Maybe this is a longer topic better revisited at a later time. Maybe this is just a cop-out because I feel ashamed. Please hold me to revisiting this.)

Back to your letter, I  completely agree that white people benefit from spaces to sort things out on our own.. Again, it is a privilege to educate myself about racism rather than experience it. My thought is that our admin would support it. I can point to other schools creating separate spaces for these conversations if it is helpful. I believe in our staff, and believe that our white colleagues are open to this conversation. I think we could make the importance of discomfort apparent to them.

You asked, “How do I make other white teachers feel?” I can really only speak for myself here. I feel enthusiastic agreement every time you have spoken up about race (especially when you do so pointedly) with our staff . I’m sorry if I haven’t told you that enough. I am confident others on our staff feel the same way as I do. It is also possible that others feel discomfort. And to that I say it’s okay not to care about white discomfort. I saw a quote that really captured the urgency here, “It may take awhile for you to comprehend your role in racist systems, but keep in mind that people are dying while they wait for you.”

So if I can return the favor you have done for me in this regard,  GO FOR IT.

Geez, this letter has gotten long. Here are some other questions still lingering for me.

  • For the RSJ group, what do you think the mission statement should be? Mine was - ha - the very specific "make the world better." I wrote some follow up, but I'm still grappling with how to make this more specific. What is your take? 
  • Do you think the way I present to our staff has changed in the past few weeks? I certainly feel different, I feel fired up. Is this showing?  Am I steamrolling? Is that OK?
  • I'm working on a list of the ways in which I have privilege and also the mistakes I have made in terms of racial inequity in the past. I'm sure this isn't a new idea to you. To help me get better at this - what have you done to come to terms with your privilege and power ?
Again, thank you for writing me. I look forward to hearing back. 

In solidarity, 


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