How to Be White (after #PoCC12) – Part 8

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Bridge Conversations about “Teaching & Learning” and “Diversity & Inclusion”


Chris Thinnes


If you want to check out the earlier items in this series, look for links in the navigation menu to your right. There’s also an index below. I am very grateful for the opportunity afforded by Dr. Gene Batiste, and by my friends and colleagues in CTA, to have been a conference blogger for #PoCC12.

Dear Reader:

This is it, people. This is the one where I flip the lights off, figuratively, on the “Code of Conduct for White Folks at PoCC” and its several attendant invitations. Harder for me than for you, probably, but so be it. Time to figure out how to move forward with what has been a transformative personal and professional learning experience for me, yet again. And it’s exactly on that last phrase — ‘personal and professional learning experience,’ and the extent to which that phrase affirms a problematic misconception on my part, and maybe yours — with which I’ve just realized I’ll bid a fond Adieu.

Here’s how I got to this last post. I’m a Twitter geek, and two unthinkably spectacular things happened to give my tweets some wings this week. Here’s the first:

I know. Seriously. Cue the chorus from the Offspring song. “Be still my privilege,” I tweeted back. I could tell you why @Baratunde‘s shout-out made me as uncomfortable even as much as it made me grateful, but that might be obvious to you, and it’s beside the point of my story. But the closing keynote speaker, after whose stunning How to Be Black I’d ironically titled this series of posts, himself acknowledged them and helped to share them.

And here’s the second thing that happened — on Twitter, that is, and as part of this story, anyway — which I saw on the way to the airport from PoCC:

That’s right. The very guy who saved my metaphysical bacon several years ago, by giving me the best reason ever not to throw in the towel on my commitments to teaching and learning, tweeted out a link to resources from a recent event I’d helped to organize. I thanked him with a ‘pinch me’ . . . and — get this — he tweeted the link again!

If you’re not into Twitter and don’t have a personal learning network, I sound like a fool to you — either because you don’t know what I mean or, more likely, because I’m a fool. Doesn’t matter. That’s all fine.

But here’s the thought I had that might actually be important. And it’s not going to sound like it’s important at first.

I thought to myself, “I wonder if these guys follow each other. . .”

Which brings me to my 13th and final invitation in my series of such invitations to white folks. Here’s one more thing I plan to do to carry my work forward, in order to honor the spirit of the People of Color Conference and to be active as an ally of people of color. I invite you to do the same:

13. Bridge Conversations about ‘Teaching & Learning” and “Diversity & Inclusion”

I don’t beg the question whether Baratunde Thurston and Ken Robinson follow each other on Twitter to imply anything about either one of them: they’re both intellectual heros of mine (and comic heros, for whatever that’s worth) and, therefore, I refuse from the bottom of my heart to think critically about their work. Please don’t misunderstand me to be inviting your difference of opinion about that. I also am directly and specifically aware of the areas in which their work explicitly intersects, despite a common misunderstanding about the differences between their ‘fields.’

And it’s that misconception of a difference between their ‘fields’ that I’d like to begin exploring, more intentionally than ever.

Dr. Steven Jones made a powerful point with a typical economy (for him, that is, as opposed to mere mortals who pick up a pen or open their mouths) at the event to which Sir Ken referred: We expect all students to demonstrate proficiency in math . . . Why not in cultural competence? (Video here)

Somehow our collective conversations about diversity, inclusion, equity, and justice  — as teachers and leaders, as parents and children, as people of color and white folks — remain relegated to some ‘value added’ territory of affective, environmental, or ‘cultural’ conditions which are understood as secondary to the ‘real’ business of learning. Many of us continue to view ‘diversity’ as a matter having primarily to do with ‘cultural sensitivity’ (which implies that a normative, primarily white constituency, should be sympathetic to the ‘plight’ of people of color. Yuck.). What Dr. Jones urges us to do is to shift our collective conversation to one about cultural competency — a skill set that invites all of us to design intentional learning goals every bit as critical as those ‘twenty-first century skills’ we can all list off on 4, 5, or 6 fingers, depending on whose Kool-Aid you’ve been sipping.

But are those of us engaged in the discourse on ‘twenty-first century learning’ or ‘schools of the future’ doing that? Or have we relegated ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ to another rung on the learning ladder, and left it off the table with some seemingly politer version of “that would be a lovely way to add some value to an excellent educational program. We’ll work on that too. Promise!”

Let me press on, from another angle: are those of us engaged in the work of diversity, inclusion, equity, and justice as invested in the discourse on deeper learning models as we should be? I mean that respectfully; I hope you know that by now. But seriously: did all of the workshops about teaching and learning at #PoCC, that were intended to address such matters, have the feel of “things we must do for all learners” or “things we could also do for some learners.” If it’s an ‘also,’ it’s somehow less important in your mind.

I’m not trying to be rough; I’m trying to be honest. And maybe your experience of #PoCC12 was different than mine — and I know (a) that I missed plenty and (b) that this isn’t an ‘education conference’ — but I found myself brushing up against a lot of very, very passionate people who, in my opinion, were inadvertently creating space for resistant educators to find an ‘out.’

Case in point: in the first regional meeting I attended with adults from my region’s schools, I had the honor to sit in a circle with a group of driven K-5 educators to discuss multicultural curriculum in the lower grades. Everyone in the circle had something that they, individually, made a point to ‘teach’ in order to broaden their students’ perspectives. But what they meant by that was something more like they had a book they read or a topic they discussed. “I make sure that they read Langston Hughes’ poetry,” one said. “We always find time to talk about American Slavery,” another said. “I make sure there are books about the Holocaust available,” said someone else. And so on. Everybody had some thing, or some topic, that they used to ‘supplement,’ ‘enrich,’ ‘broaden,’ ‘challenge,’ or ‘complement’ what we all referred to as ‘the curriculum.’ And Thank God they do.

But it hit me, at the same time, that this is exactly the problem. Most of us have a set of assumptions about what constitutes the ‘core’ curriculum that continually goes unchallenged — and what we ‘use’ to foster ‘conversations’ about diversity and inclusion is left up to individual teachers — usually depending on their personal passion, and sometimes depending on their willingness to be creatively subversive — to push onto the plate. When does cultural competence — and the vital skills of collaboration, critical thought, and communication necessary for students to become culturally competent — get a plate? If we are actually helping our students to become citizens in a democracy, when does it become the plate?

If we were talking about teaching children how to read, and we said “I teach this book, and that book, and that book, and this book,” we’d get laughed out of a job. If we were talking about teaching children how to do math, and we said “I teach this problem, and that problem, and that problem, and this problem,” we’d be looking for another gig. We don’t do that: we design learning goals by identifying skills, and designing engaging learning experiences to introduce, to develop, and to practice the strategies of successful readers and mathematicians. The ‘stuff’ we use, and the ‘topics’ we discuss, comes second, or third.

Plus there’s this: let’s say ‘teaching a novel by Sandra Cisneros’ is your ‘multiculturalism’ goal. Are all of the professionals in your learning community prepared to do so without further support? Mmm-hmm….

So one of the things we could do together, in order to challenge these assumptions and empower the full community of learners and teachers, is to identify the specific learning goals for cultural competence that we expect all learners to develop in our schools. And put them right smack on the list with the others we can all pull out of our pockets without thinking.

Another case in point: in the second regional meeting, in which students facilitated the conversations with adults, the topic came up about how we support learners who are struggling to meet our school’s expectations. We wrack our brains in an impassioned and authentic effort to ensure that all learners — regardless of their background, their circumstances, or their proficiencies — achieve ‘success’ with reference to our schools’ established academic learning goals. Surely this effort is essential to developing truly inclusive learning communities — and it must always continue.

But why do all of our assumptions about our schools’ established learning goals go unchallenged? Why do we define our task as helping students to engage in behaviors, and to achieve a ‘standard,’ that is itself assumed to be a part of the natural order of things? When do we start asking how an antiquated idea of ‘excellence’ and ‘rigor’ is itself informed by a cultural perspective? When do we acknowledge that the conversation about ‘privilege’ is essential to examining the most fundamental assumptions in our schools about ‘achievement,’ college placement, career readiness, and other fundamental ambitions at the core of our schools’ institutional identities? When do we stop talking about meeting all learners ‘at their levels,’ and start really doing it?

If a student is ‘struggling’ to meet our schools’ expectations, our schools are struggling to do their jobs. Time for kids to stop thinking of themselves as the failures, and time for us to get busy doing our jobs.

And now for a final case in point, with the same spirit of respectful challenge intended.

I mentioned before that “white people at the People of Color Conference…have a more visible presence than people of color in our schools.” Of the registered participants at #PoCC12, just under 23% were white. And the conference is meant primarily for people of color, and only secondarily for their allies.

If you have the chance to attend the NAIS Annual Conference in Philadelphia later this year, have a look around. Dare I say it? Okay, I will: I’m going to bet that there will be less than 25% people of color at the conference. And it’s meant primarily for ‘everyone.’

We misunderstand #PoCC12 to be merely a ‘diversity conference.’ We misunderstand #NAISac13 to be merely an ‘education conference.’ And we miss crucial opportunities to bridge these ‘discourses,’ ‘fields,’ ‘conversations’ . . . call them what you will . . . to the great detriment of the children in our care.

We all work in schools that serve a dreadfully narrow portion of the American population, and make a faustian bargain in exchange for an opportunity that presents itself. With that willingness to be complicit in the privilege our schools cultivate, comes not just an opportunity, but an obligation, to design and to support engaging learning opportunities that will transform learning as we have known it.

“Teaching and Learning.”

“Diversity and Inclusion.”

I had damn well better know, at the end of the day, that I am making a serious commitment to each.


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Here’s an index to the 13 invitations — some unnecessarily timid, and some unnecessarily provocative — I’ve offered during these last days of #PoCC12 and its energy. If you can bear to hear more, click on a link:

1. This is Not a Diversity Conference. This is Not an Educational Conference.

2. Do Not Expect to Be an Honored Guest

3. Attend and Embrace Affinity Group Sessions

4. Shift Your Attention from ‘Sensitivity’ to Skills

5. Create These Kinds of Spaces at Your School

6. Don’t Pretend to Understand the Experience of People of Color. Above All, Do Not Make Jokes About It.

7. Explore Representations of White Privilege in Popular Culture 

8. When You Blow It, Own It

9. Exercise Your Interruption Skills with White People

10. Talk to White People and People of Color about Race

11. Understand Microagressions and Cop to Them

12. Take This Work Into Your Personal Life

13. Bridge Conversations about ‘Teaching & Learning” and “Diversity & Inclusion” [You are here.]

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You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes

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  • teachermrw

    The quintessential issue I have with the PoCC is what it has become: A diversity 101 conference, and not a conference for the professional and scholarly training, and emotional and spiritual uplift, of people of color (PoC) in independent schools. In fact, the conference, in its truest sense, was perhaps last witnessed and experienced by attendees to the 1997 PoCC Conference in St. Louis, MO. I was one of those attendees, and it was my first PoCC experience. At one time, the sites for the PoCC were sites which meant something for PoC. The site of the 1997 PoCC was about 1 hour from the Cahokia Mounds, with a First Nations welcoming ceremony. Due to political forces at NAIS in the late 1990s and early 2000s, amongst which was a complaint that the PoCC attracted “too many Black people, the doors were opened to what was then termed as “White allies.” In recent years, these so-called White allies were observed cheering during the opening ceremony roll call when it was announced that there were more of them in attendance than there were of their Black colleagues. Even more recently than that, Black folks were performing the “Electric Slide” during a session of the African American affinity group session. How do these examples help PoC to improve themselves and feel good about the spaces and places they occupy in independent schools?

    So, the PoCC is legions away from its original mission and intent. There was an attempt to return to this original mission and intent, due to vocal outcries by POC. However, when the proverbial cat has been let out, it is difficult to corral it back into the bag.

    This is not to say that there should not be opportunities for PoC and White allies to come together to do the work diversity, inclusion, equity and social justice. To the contrary: There absolutely should and must be those opportunities. After all, PoC cannot do all of The Work. On the other hand, in the spirit of El Haaj Malcolm X, I believe in self-determination, and occupying spaces for, by and of PoC.

    • ChrisThinnes

      Thank you @TeacherMRW for your sharing your experience and insights. I was taken by your reminder of the intentional co-location of the PoCC space with sites of critical personal, social, historical importance in particular.

      I noticed that many of your critical concerns about the role of white folks in a conference designed explicitly for people of color (with a parenthetical for ‘allies’) intersect with exactly the concerns articulated by many other veteran attendees, explored in depth at the last two summer meetings of CTA, and kept in mind (successfully or unsuccessfully, I wouldn’t venture to presume) in the designation of themes, the selection of workshops, and the design of affinity group curricula the last couple of years. This makes me wonder if you attended either of the last two, and if you noticed any differences to the experience in the years of shared concern to which you’re alluding? I’m really curious — not at all to question your perspective, but instead to inform mine — if you think there have been any steps “in the right direction…”

      Thanks again for engaging!


      • teachermrw

        Hi! Thank you for your reply.

        No; I have not attended the last two People of Color Conferences. In fact, the last People of Color Conference I attended (and, at which I presented) was in 2010, in San Diego. So, it’s been several years.

        • ChrisThinnes

          I can only hope that a variety of strong voices that have represented concerns that echo or intersect with yours have helped to influence helpful changes on a variety of fronts. I wonder if you’d be open to giving it another go in the years to come; and I’d be eager to know if you felt — from the context of your longer-term experience, and the lens of your identity — if any of the changes had helped to shift the design, culture, and community in a better direction. So appreciate the exchange! CT