Tag Archives: whiteness

Moving Towards Reconciliation: Why Planting Trees Is Not Enough

Co-written by Raquel Bellefleur & Meagan Dobson 

Originally posted via UR S.T.A.R.S.

What does ‘reconciliation’ actually mean?

Like many, we entered our post-secondary education with limited information about Treaties and the ways in which the two of us are positioned in society as a result of our privilege. We have spent the past three years learning and unlearning alongside mentors (professors) and like-minded peers – all of which has contributed to our personal and professional growth during our time in the Faculty of Education. We established S.T.A.R.S. (Student Teachers Anti-Racist/Anti-Oppressive Society) Regina in 2014 as an outlet for our exploration as socially just, anti-oppressive educators.

Despite progression towards change in our hearts and minds, we continue to struggle with the disconnect between thought and action. Yes, we are our own toughest critics; however, it is important to be critical of ourselves because that’s how we will continue working through our privilege/push ourselves to keep doing this work.

We know reconciliation is important, but how can our inner changes translate into outer action?

False Facade

In the work we have done, one thing we have struggled with is our ability to switch off or walk away from the work, especially when it becomes most discomforting. We can do this because of our privilege.

Although performance (meaning the ability to “try on” an identity as an anti-oppressive educator) can be a positive thing, there is a fine line between using performance as a starting point and completely abandoning anti-oppressive work while continuing to receive recognition and praise for it.

For example, although we both believe that meaningfully engaging in ceremony is part of the reconciliation process, there have been many times that we have turned down opportunities to participate because we were “too busy” or had other things to do.

Ultimately, our lists of priorities that prevented us from participating was our privilege in disguise.

Our privilege means that we can say and think things like: I don’t need to go to this; this doesn’t affect me; my life won’t change whether I go or not. Yet, even when we have participated in ceremony the potential to be unaffected by the experience is a reality – we can cut ourselves off from it just enough so that we are not personally affected by it.

What is being an ally?

We would love to be able to say we are allies of our Indigenous friends and colleagues; however, we realize that we cannot give ourselves that status. Showing up to ceremony does not make us allies; putting ourselves in a physical space is not enough. We need to make a consistent effort to authentically work towards reconciliation rather than superficially and periodically visiting the idea – committing to being witnesses, not tourists.

Receiving Cookies

Something else we’ve struggled with is receiving so much praise for our work with S.T.A.R.S. Regina. Noel Starblanket often wears his S.T.A.R.S. t-shirt and often commends our group when he speaks. Our #TreatyEdCamp event was recognized in the Legislative Assembly. Dr. Jennifer Tupper, the Dean of Education, sends out tweets like this:

We are grateful for any recognition we receive, but it is still problematic. Due to our privilege, we are positioned as “good white people” and praised for doing very little. Dr. Michael Cappello calls this kind of praise “receiving cookies.” We’ve been really uncomfortable with being positioned in this way and are unsure of how to respond respectfully.

Moving Forward – ReconciliACTION

This post started with us asking each other:  What have we ACTUALLY done? We provided opportunities for learning through PD events like #ReadtheTRC; we brought teachers together to learn about integrating Treaty Education into all subject areas; we’ve had many conversations about power, privilege, and reconciliation. But what effect is that ACTUALLY having on us and others? How do we move from talk to action?

Although we are still wrestling with these questions, we’ve tried to identify a few of our next steps:

  1. Listen to Indigenous colleagues when they say this is good work. 

Although it’s important to be critical of ourselves, we must be careful to not fall into a cycle of cynicism. We won’t dismiss encouragement and praise from our wonderful allies, but we will not to take it as more than it is. We cannot allow these ‘cookies’ to lead to our complacency or tempt us into apathy. We must remember that our Indigenous allies are happy to see these starting points, but also expect much more from us. While we are grateful for any recognition, the feedback and input of our Indigenous colleagues and friends is most important because they have been directly impacted by this history. It is these relationships that are central to reconciliation and our movement forward.

  1. Start with conversations.

We know they are ‘Calls to Action’, not ‘Calls to Conversation’, however, we need conversation to guide us to the right ways to do this work. As Gary Edwards explained at Taking Up the TRC Calls to Action, we know we’re in a time of real change because nobody knows what to do or how to do it.

We also need to have conversations with our peers, colleagues, profs, siblings, parents, grandparents, and anyone else who might not know about the horrific historical injustice, or the painstaking work put into the TRC, or what the Calls to Action mean for reconciliation. Although this conversation may be uncomfortable and difficult, we must commit to it. It’s far too important to remain silent and our silences will not protect us anyway. These truths must be spoken.

  1. Build relationships.

We have often heard, “Reconciliation is about relationships,” but wondered how we could go about springing up relationships out of nowhere. The best we can come up with is putting ourselves in spaces where there is potential for relationship building. We will participate in ceremony and seek out public events, like the lecture by the Honourable Justice Murray Sinclair and the roundtable discussion Taking Up the TRC Calls to Action, where connections and relationships might start to form. We will listen to the advice of Emerging Elder-in-Residence Joseph Naytowhow, who encouraged us to use laughter as a way to enter into relationship.

  1. Take responsibility. Pick a Call to Action and commit to it.

After Sinclair spoke, many people stood up in the lengthy line for the microphone to ask questions that sounded like: “…So what do we do?” to which he replied, “I just wrote a 5000-page report. What are you willing to do?” He urged us to read the report, or at least some of it:

He encouraged us to pick a Call to Action, to work to make it happen, and to never stop.

Sinclair used the metaphor of planting trees to describe the importance of starting to do this work and never stopping. We will not see reconciliation fulfilled in our lifetime; our kids may not see it fulfilled in theirs. But we need to start with planting seeds and teaching our children to water them so that their children might see the saplings and then their children might see the roots deepen, the trunk widen, and the branches fill out. We need to commit to this work for future generations.

We commit to Call to Action #62. We will teach about residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada. We will continually learn how to integrate and utilize Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into our classrooms and we will provide opportunities to help our colleagues do the same.

The Choice

We’ve realized that instead of carrying the weight of undoing colonialism and achieving reconciliation, we need to start with planting seeds. Is planting the seeds enough? Not even close. But we have to start somewhere. And for us, it starts with the decision to commit to this work for the rest of our lives.

We will need help along the way to ensure we do not give in to our privilege, which will tempt us to apathy, to smugness, to being tourists rather than working towards witnessing. Will you challenge us when we set foot there?

 

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” -J.R.R. Tolkien.

This is life’s work, and we must choose it every day.

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Moving Past the Good White People Narrative

This post is a response to “I Don’t Know What to Do with Good White People” by Bennett and Chapter 3: “The Eye of the Beholder” of Revealing the Invisible by Sherry Marx.  I happened to read this article and this book chapter in the same day and couldn’t believe how many parallels there were between the two!  Both discuss the good white people narrative and the ways White people distance themselves from the construct of racism.

In her article, Bennett describes “good white people” as those who responded to the Darren Wilson non-indictment with empathy or outrage, joined protests, deleted racist Facebook friends, or performed small acts of kindness to Black people.  She emphasizes the way the good white people congratulated themselves for these acts, concerned with “seeming good,” and sometimes expecting to be rewarded for their decency. This description instantly made me feel defensive of my own actions in response to the non-indictment, but as I read through Marx’s discussions with the preservice teachers I was able to better understand what Bennett meant.

Marx writes, “When I asked Elizabeth if she could be racist, she reeled back in horror, gasped, and exclaimed, ‘No. Absolutely not. I think racism is a bad thing… It’s not like I’m a bad person. I know I’m not a bad person. I know I have a good heart” (p. 85). Marx also explains how the young women easily shared stories about the racism of others, which seemed intended to highlight their own contrasting, nonracist qualities. The good white people narrative allows us to focus on our small acts of decency and our good intentions, making our own racism invisible.

Now, I want to make it clear that critiquing the good white people narrative does not mean it’s a bad thing to try to be a good white person (using your white privilege for good). The problem with the narrative is that when we see ourselves as good white people we obscure the ways that we are implicit in racism.

As Bennett puts it, “We all want to believe in progress, in history that marches forward in a neat line, in transcended differences and growing acceptance, in how good the good white people have become. So we expect racism to appear, cartoonishly evil like a Disney villain.” However, if we understand racism “as a system that advantages Whites and disadvantages people of colour,” then we must recognize that “all members of society contribute to this reproduction of inequality simply by going about ‘business as usual’” (Marx, p. 91). This means that racism is not only evil acts done by evil people; rather, it is “an inevitable consequence of living in a racist society (Marx, p. 89).”

The good white people narrative allows us to equate racism with evil and hatred and to think of it as something that others do, rather than recognizing it in our own everyday thoughts and actions.

So how do we move past this problematic good white people narrative? These are just a few ways I have gathered from my readings. Please comment your thoughts and additional suggestions!!

  1. Accept your Whiteness.

We don’t have to feel guilty about being White. Marx writes about negative White identity, which many of her preservice teachers possessed because they associated Whiteness with shame and guilt for all the crimes of oppression Whites have committed against people of colour.  In order to move past this guilt/negative White identity, we must accept our Whiteness and define a view of Self as a racial being that does not depend on the perceived superiority of one racial group over another (Helms quoted by Marx, p. 90).

  1. Acknowledge your own racism.

To move to a positive White identity, we must acknowledge our own racism as an inevitable consequence of living in a racist society. You can’t work to be actively anti-racist unless you acknowledge and address your own racist tendencies.

  1. Stop focusing on your good intentions.

The problematic thing about the good white people narrative is that it excuses white people for racist thoughts/actions because they didn’t mean to do any harm, because it wasn’t their intention to hurt or offend anyone. As Bennett powerfully states, “What good are your good intentions if they kill us?” We need to examine our own actions and how they contribute to both equity and inequity – turning the gaze back to Self – despite the good intentions behind those actions.

To sum it all up:  If we can reject and move past the good white people narrative, we can acknowledge our own implicitness in racism, which is the first step in the direction of antiracist work.

Illuminating the Invisible: How Privilege Has Shaped My Experiences

At the lovely Katia Hildebrandt’s suggestion, I have started reading Revealing the Invisible:  Confronting Passive Racism in Teacher Education by Sherry Marx, a book discusses the “damaging effects of unaddressed racism and white privilege on the capacity of white teachers to effectively teach students of colour.”  Chapter 2:  “Illuminating the Invisible” explored the ways that Whites make sense of Whiteness and colour as well as the common role model and saviour constructs developed by preservice teachers. This chapter connected to an assignment (curriculum-as-place.docx) I did last year for ECS 210, in which I wrote an autobiography to represent my identity and to identify significant moments in my journey that shaped my life, beliefs, and values as a future teacher.  After I handed it in, I was asked to reflect on whether I included the ways in which my gender, race, class, sexuality and other parts of my identity affected my life experiences.  I reflected that I was able to leave those parts of my identity out because I occupy positions of privilege in those areas, but I did not reflect on the specific ways my experiences were affected by my privilege. To be honest, the reason it has taken me so long to write this post is because it’s not comfortable to recognize the ways my privilege has affected my life experiences.  It means I have to own up to the fact that the experiences I’ve had and the things I have accomplished are not all due to my own hard work.  After reading Chapter 2, I knew it was time to go back to this assignment and compare what I wrote to the patterns of dialogue between Marx and the pre-service teachers she engages with. The first thing I noticed when reading over my autobiography was the pattern of writing about myself as a role model/”self-aggrandizing helper” in my volunteer work, just as many of the young women in the book do.  When I discussed my first three experiences, I wrote in a very self-centred way, focusing on the ways I was able to help the youth I worked with.  For example, I wrote about how I helped a child come out of his shell, how my support was so encouraging to students in the Functionally Integrated Program, and how I could provide new and exciting experiences for my mentee.  My language consistently focused on myself and what I was doing to help the underprivileged youth I worked with. Marx explains that “while those acting as benevolent role models and saviours are often lauded as self-sacrificing, well intentioned, and in possession of hearts of gold, this construct of the helper necessitates that the person helped is constructed as needy, dependent, and incapable of achieving on her or his own” (pg. 72).  Looking back, I think I had a deficit perception of some of the youth I worked with, which in turn allowed me to construct an idealistic version of myself as a role model. In the next part of my autobiography, I discussed my experience on a humanitarian trip to Pachuca, Mexico, with the U of R Cougar Women’s Soccer Team without acknowledging that it was my privilege as a middle class female and member of a university soccer team that enabled me to go on this trip.  Additionally, I did not once refer to how my whiteness affected this experience.  This connects with when Becky, one of the preservice teachers, stated regarding children of colour, “They are people.  I’m a person.  And… I just like kids.  So, I just talked to them.  You know, I don’t really think about [racial and cultural differences.] (pg. 48).  Similarly, when I wrote about my experience in Mexico, I tried to cling to my sense of racial neutrality, using colour-blind language and avoiding discussion of experiences that emphasized my Whiteness.  For example, at one of the elementary schools we visited, my teammates and I signed autographs for children at the school for almost an hour straight.  They treated us like celebrities because of our Whiteness; however, I preferred to think that they were just excited to have visitors painting murals at their school. Another example of ignoring my Whiteness is from a blog post I wrote on our trip blog.  Describing the tour of Technológico de Monterrey, I wrote, “We received many curious stares, for a few possible reasons: because we were all wearing matching grey Cougars t-shirts, because we were all in shorts while most students were wearing jeans and sweaters, or (most likely) because we’re a group of 21 incredibly good-looking girls (plus Bob!).”  I am quite sure that the real reason we were stared at was that the majority of my team was White. Marx explains that this desire to shrug off the marker of race is a common feeling among Whites because we are so used to our race being neutral/invisible/normal.  She goes on to contrast this with the markedness of colour, explaining that Whites often perceive the White racial group as being extremely complex and ambiguous, while perceiving cultures of colour as homogenous, tight-knit identities.  Looking back, I think I also perceived Mexican culture in that way at times.  I remember making comments about not wanting to leave because there was such a strong sense of culture and shared history.  Through these comments, I was implying that “Whites are so diverse they don’t share any of those markers of culture.”  There are definitely the same elements of diversity within Mexican culture as within White culture, however it is harder (for me) to see because of the stereotypes/single stories I have absorbed. My privilege shaped the first three experiences I discussed by making it possible for me to view myself as an idealized role model while holding deficit views of the youth I worked with.  My privilege as an able-bodied middle class female made it possible for me to go on the humanitarian trip to Pachuca.  While in Pachuca, my White privilege made it possible for me to ignore my Whiteness completely and to think about Mexican culture as homogenous. This reflection forced me to make sense of my experiences in an uncomfortable way, which was necessary because I knew that the ways I had made sense of my experiences in my autobiography were not only inaccurate but complicit with oppression. Now my challenge is to continue reflecting on how my privilege shapes my experiences.  Even though it is a really difficult, uncomfortable process, I know it is worth it.