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Get out of the car

Editor's note: This article was reposted with permission of the author from Click to find other great thoughts from this award-winning educator.

On October 10, 2015, an incident occurred at the University of Missouri homecoming parade that made national news but somehow escaped my attention. A group of black students protesting systemic and overt racism dating back to 1839, when the university was built as a whites-only institution using slave labor, blocked a convertible in which the university’s president, Tim Wolfe, was riding. Wolfe remained in the car as the small group of protestors interrupted the parade to present a chronological series of examples of ongoing racial injustices at Mizzou, “not an indictment on white folks but. . .an indictment on white structures and white supremacy.”

The mostly white crowd yelled at the protestors and chanted loudly as if to drown out what the protestors were saying. A number of white men and women attempted to move the protestors from the parade route and to form a human chain to block the protest and allow the president’s car to pass. All the while, President Wolfe remained in his red convertible, where he could clearly see and hear the protest. The protest ended 11 minutes after it began when several police officers intervened and asked the protestors to step aside.

To simplify a complicated story, one of the activists involved in the protest, Jonathan Butler, began a hunger strike to protest the president’s lack of responsiveness to racist incidents, during the parade as well as when other complaints were reported. The hunger strike attracted media attention and put Mizzou in the spotlight.

Nearly a month after the parade incident, Wolfe finally issued an apology for his silence during the parade. “My behavior seemed like I didn’t care,” the apology stated. “That was not my intention. I was caught off guard at that moment. Nevertheless, had I gotten out of the car to acknowledge the students and talk with them, perhaps we wouldn’t be where we are today.” Several days later, after a threatened strike by Mizzou football players calling for his resignation, Wolfe stepped down.

Reading the news articles about this incident and watching video footage of the protest conjured up many emotions in me, but the part that keeps haunting me is the line in Wolfe’s apology: “[H]ad I gotten out of the car to acknowledge the students and talk with them, perhaps we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

I wonder if enough educators today are “getting out of the car,” meeting diverse students where they are and letting them know they are heard, seen, and valued. I can’t say that every school is that racially charged or that most students of color have reached a similar brink of frustration. I do know that 80% of public school teachers in America are white, and that less than half of the 50 million students enrolled in public schools are white.

For the rest of this essay, I’ll be talking mostly to the 80% of us who are white educators, but the rest of you are welcome to join me to make sure I’m not saying anything foolish.

According to Beverly Daniel Tatum in Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, a 2013 American Values Survey found that “75 percent of Whites have entirely White social networks, without any minority presence.” The same is not true about the homogeneity of other races’ social networks. Apparently, a lot of white people only hang out with other white people.

It’s difficult to understand the way others perceive the world if we don’t get to know them. In order for me to understand the treatment others experience, I need to listen to those people and hear their stories. I need to shut up and quit my whitesplaining (ironic, since that’s what I’m doing right here. . . sorry) so that I can give others a voice. If I know who someone is, I am more likely to connect with them and others who share an identity with them. If a growing number of the students I see every day come from racial backgrounds different than mine, I face some potential challenges in connecting with those students. I imagine some of these students feel like the students at the University of Missouri felt: unseen, unheard, and wronged. I need to get out of the car, listen to them, and let them know that they are valued.

So what’s a white person to do if they’re among the 75% who only socialize with other white people? I suggest figuring out how to bring some diversity into your social circle. It’s terribly awkward (and, really, just wrong) to collect friends of different races like you are hunting Pokémon, so please don’t go out into the world with a diversity checklist to complete. Consider volunteering in the community somewhere other than your place of worship (as those tend to remain largely segregated in America today), attending arts events (I love a good talkback after a theatre performance, though I usually listen a lot more than I talk), or finding a group, such as DFW’s Community Conversations, where people meet for the purpose of talking and listening to understand one another’s perspectives.

Making connections like these requires some effort, and there’s no guarantee of success. A less risky way to “meet” some new people is through reading their stories. Take a look at your bookshelf. Was every book written by a white author? Maybe it’s time to step outside the usual to encounter some new literary voices.

Some of my favorite reading experiences are ones in which I have allowed a person with a cultural identity unlike mine to tell me their story. As a college student on summer vacation reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, I was uncomfortable, shocked, and moved as I experienced racism through Malcolm’s eyes and felt the source of his indignation. As an adult, digesting Ta-Nahesi Coates’s letter to his son, Between the World and Me, continued to stretch my thinking about race relations, cultural identity, and the struggles black Americans face that I seldom consider as a white male. Recently, I’ve read a number of young adult novels with non-white characters and authors, each of which has helped me grow in my understanding of multicultural perspectives. In Erika L. Sánchez’s I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, I felt the pains of growing up as a precocious Latina teen in inner-city Chicago. Getting to know Adib Khorram’s hilarious narrator in Darius the Great is Not Okay, who struggles with his half-Persian identity (and general teenage angst) as he travels to visit his mother’s family in Iran, provided some insight into cultural norms unlike my own. Reading Dear Martin (Nic Stone), On the Come Up (Angie Thomas), All-American Boys (Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely), and The Field Guide to the North American Teenager (Ben Philippe) gave me multiple perspectives on what it might be like to be a black teenager today.

Understanding another cultural identity, that of transgender youth, is easier for me after reading Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart. The 57 Bus: The True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater helped me see two sides of an incident from the perspectives of two teens: a gender-fluid boy and his African-American classmate.

Can I claim to be an expert on any of these cultures because I read a few books or met a few people? Of course not. Every individual’s cultural identity and life experiences are their own. Just as I can’t speak with authority about the experience of every middle-aged, white male in America, I certainly have no right to claim a full understanding of the experiences of a group I don’t belong to based on my own interactions, however extensive. But opening my mind and heart as I let others tell their stories develops my understanding and empathy. And, when I learn from listening that something in the system we (and by “we,” I mean people who look a lot like me) have built in our country is corrupt, unfair, or unjust, I can lift my voice along with their voice to do something about changing it.

Fellow educators, I invite you to join me this summer in getting out of the car, meeting some new people (whether in real life or on the pages of books), and joining the conversation. Let others be heard, so that we can make more meaningful—more human—connections with our students, their parents, our colleagues, and all the other wonderful humans in this beautifully diverse country we live in.

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