The SEED (Seeking Educational Equity & Diversity) Showcase: Tools of Resistance is the first educational conference I’ve been to in many years, and I was excited. Since it was held just 20 minutes away at the First Congregational Church in Oakland (affectionately called First Congo by its parishioners), I didn’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to drive there. I found parking right away—because, for once, I was early!—and entered through the blue door as specifically instructed on our pre-conference materials.
Loud rap music was coming over the loudspeakers in the main hall, setting a distinctly different atmosphere from any educational conferences I’d ever been to. I gathered various free materials (a mainstay of any teachers’ workshop), made my way over to get a bagel and coffee (also an important component of any teachers’ workshop), and grabbed a seat in the front row for the whole-group event.
After a brief mindfulness exercise to get us all centered, Dr. Eddie Moore, founder of the White Privilege Conference, took the stage. He began by telling us he was an emotional mess and has been since November. (Nobody in our progressive Bay Area crowd had to ask what he was referring to.) I listened eagerly, expecting to agree with everything he said, and I appreciated his energy and passion. He compared our struggle with racism to the relationship between the dominant lion and the innocent lamb. While I didn’t entirely understand his metaphor, it made for a striking visual.
He stirred us up with a rousing call to action, and I found myself nodding a lot. Yes, it is scary knowing that white supremacists have the presidents’ ear. No, we can’t be complacent and accept this as normal. Yes, we must do what we can to resist!
Then he mentioned that even well-meaning white teachers did not see future doctors and lawyers when they saw black boys in their classrooms, and he bemoaned the fact that he had to send his son—a black boy—to kindergarten where his teacher was a white woman.
It was as if a fully saturated roll of paper towels had hit me in the chest. I’m a white woman who has taught black boys, and I sincerely hoped that none of their parents felt that way about me. I know in my heart I never expected less of any of my students based on their race. Don’t I?
I was feeling resistance, but it was not in the way I’d expected. I let that sit with me for a while and consciously worked against my gut reaction. Somewhere in the back of my head I heard my daughter telling me that this was tough work and in order to make progress, I was going to be uncomfortable sometimes.
Then it was time for small-group work. Our name tags were color coded to divide us into groups of ten to twelve. (Go Team Red!) Our leaders went over the procedures for SEED meetings and gave us a question as a writing prompt, after which, we took turns in triads sharing our responses in precisely timed three-minute segments. I went last and finished in under sixty seconds. Although the SEED way is to embrace any silence that occurs before the timer goes off, it is not in my nature to sit quietly. So I just kept adding thoughts until it was time for crosstalk, which is SEED’s term for discussion among the triad members. Then it was time for popcorn (which, as it turns out, did not mean it was snack break.) Apparently popcorn is the term used for the discussion that happens in the small group (bigger than the triad, smaller than the whole group). People shared thoughts and feelings that had come up for them during Dr. Moore’s talk.
And out of nowhere I shared something I had not ever planned to talk about, all in the spirit of being open, I guess. Even as I was blathering, I began to worry that I shouldn’t have mentioned it at all. What would my Team Red colleagues think? Immediately afterward, a kind soul reminded us that this was a safe space and thanked us for being willing to share feelings that might make us uncomfortable. I knew she was thanking me because, as far as I could tell, nobody else had said anything they wouldn’t be perfectly fine announcing to a crowd of strangers. I appreciated that and no longer worried about consequent judgments.
After a break, we reassembled in the main hall to hear Santa Rosa Junior College psych professor and former co-director of SEED, Dr. Brenda Flyswithhawks. A member of the Tsalagi (Cherokee) tribe, she started her presentation with a mini-lesson on the recent events at Standing Rock. A warm, funny woman who credits her grandmother as being her greatest teacher, Dr. Flyswithhawks shared several personal anecdotes about her experiences with and reactions to racism.
The most incredible story dated back to an incident that happened when she was a child. She remembers her grandmother hurrying all the children to the back of her house one day to hide. And when they emerged, little Brenda went out to the front yard, where she found her uncle hanging dead from a tree, the victim of hooded Klan members, who wanted to show Native people just what they thought of them. Years later, when she working toward her doctorate, she persistently made efforts to sit down with the grand dragon of the KKK. When she finally got a meeting with him, she told him she forgave him and told him about that traumatic day from her childhood. I have no idea what that meant to him, but she explained that the forgiveness was for her, not for him.
I could not relate. I don’t possess that kind of forgiveness, and I was floored to hear of someone who did.
We wrote our evaluations and jotted down questions on cards that were not quite 3 x 5 to submit to our speakers for an end-of-the-day conversation. Although the schedule claimed that the conference closed with a mindfulness exercise, I think that got skipped in favor of letting the Q&A time go longer. Even so, they got around to only a fraction of the questions, so I felt fortunate that both of mine were answered.
I’d asked Dr. Moore how he reconciled leaving his boy in the hands of a white woman every day, knowing he preferred not to. He replied honestly that it wasn’t a matter of reconciling it, that he still has a hard time with it. And I could hear the pain in his voice as he picked up a piece of paper and replied, “Every day, I hand my boy over whole.” Then he ripped the paper into strips, letting them fall to the floor as he said, “And every day, this is what I get back.” He proceeded to piece the strips back together on the ground and added that even after this process, his son was never as whole, that creases remained.
That is when I understood his side of the story. I may do the best job I can do as a white woman, but I could never be the perfect teacher for his son. Of course, there’s no such thing as a perfect teacher, but a parent always wants the best for his or her child. And he was speaking as a parent.
My question for Dr. Flyswithhawks was “How were you able to get to a place where you could forgive the grand dragon of the KKK for the death of your uncle, even understanding that the forgiveness was for you?” Her answer: grace–the grace she has as a spiritual woman, the grace she learned from her grandmother. She was a great believer in prayer, even as she conceded that some of us in that room would be uncomfortable with the concept of prayer.
There was that idea again—being uncomfortable. Here I was, a devout atheist since the age of 11, looking up to a woman of faith and appreciating her for all that she was. This by no means changed my thoughts on God, but I didn’t have that automatic reaction to discount what else she said, as–I admit–I might have before.
So the day was full of lessons: I learned that I could be vulnerable without negative consequences. I learned that I could listen and hold onto ideas that were contrary to my own without having to argue against them. I learned that I could accept wisdom from someone whom I truly admired but wasn’t completely aligned with ideologically.
And I needed to work on being comfortable with silence. That one might be tough.