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GMD: Addressing Racism

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I’m white. When professional photographers say that my skin reflects their flashes too much, that’s pretty white. I grew up in a very white suburb of MN. There were 3 black kids in my high school graduating class of over 538 (although a number of Korean kids who’d been adopted). But that’s it. Race wasn’t really addressed in school, except, of course for Black History Month of February, when we talked about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech. Every year, we did some kind of simulation about discrimination, to make us learn (although how could we not know) that racism was wrong and unfair. Senior year, I (and a bunch of my honors-level friends) took a humanities course. We were assigned to write a racist term paper. At first, we thought it was a mistake by the teachers, that they couldn’t possibly mean what they had written in the assignment page. After more than a week of arguing (our class and the other section too), they still insisted that we write the paper. More than half of the class flat-out refused, including two black students. There’s more to this story, but that’s pretty much been the extent of my personal experience with really blatant racism.

During teacher training, the graduate-level Diversity course was pretty useless. Most of the other people in the class were white and had grown up in the area (I hadn’t, and had just moved to the state). The required journal entries were dutifully graded by the Hispanic professor, who wrote comments like, “That’s an interesting idea!” or “Your concerns are valid!” was not helpful nor interesting. We did have to do a semi-anthropologic project of attending a [something] that we didn’t normally do. My group went to a local Islamic service (with a very helpful guide, who assumed we were all Christian) and talked with a few worshippers. Lovely, but I had nothing for or against Islam in the first place, so I’m not sure what I was supposed to get from the experience. I do remember being terrified of accidentally offending someone (the example of a “flip chart” being offensive to Filipinos blew my mind, as I didn’t even know that was a use for the word “flip”.)

In short, I’m really uncomfortable with addressing race in person or in class or online. I just don’t know what to do or when to crack down on (un)intentional racially-charged statements (which partly due to my poor classroom management skills) or to promote minority readings and authors and role models without it being a token gesture. So, I really wanted to “attend” the Global Math Department‘s* lecture by Anne Schwartz (a.k.a., @sophgermain) on Tuesday, but had to settle for watching the recording tonight.

Wow.

Really, totally worth it. Seriously, go watch it now.

Her last slide was awesome (darn, can’t get a screenshot!):
Seven Harmful Racial Discourse Practices
Making it about yourself, falsely equating incomparable acts, diverting topics from race, portraying government as overreaching, prioritizing political policy over impact, condemning through coded language, silencing/devaluing history.

Anna’s message was mostly about listening to kids and their experiences, and recognizing where racism exists in hidden places. White people have a lot of privileges, and don’t always see how our appearance benefits us over others. She also gave a list of resources, which looks fascinating.

I work at a predominantly white and affluent school. I only have one student of color this year (and two Jewish students). There are very few people of color in traditional Western introductory chemistry history (although more in upper-level stuff). I don’t know how to put them into my coursework without it being a token gesture.

I’d love to get past the terrified state, and change that into the proactive-involve-all-cultures stage. I still need some good key phrases to help me get past just nodding to a student, and into support mode. A friend of mine is a huge advocate of social justice, but I’m not comfortable with talking yet (and don’t know what would make me comfy… more experience would help, I’m sure).

I need to do more thinking on this, and probably some reading from that list Anna posted.

*Where’s the Global Chemistry Department? No activity for months! Darn!
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