I’ve been quiet this week for many reasons. One of those reasons is that I’ve taken some time away from social media and the internet to do some soul searching and privilege-checking in response to George Floyd’s murder and the systematic racism, abuse, and violence that people of color have suffered in the United States. I am a privileged and educated white woman. I’ve never felt threatened by the police nor have I experienced abuse at their hands, but my experience is the product of my privilege.
I grew up in a small Wisconsin town in which the racial makeup is 83% white, 12% Native American, 2.5% Latinx, and 0.5% African American (according to the 2010 census). In other words, I grew up in racial ignorance. This not something I feel defensive about and it is not something I could change as a young girl (I couldn’t change where I lived) but these are the facts that I have to keep in mind when I listen to the news, when I share my experiences with my Native American husband, and when I hear my POC former students speaking out and demanding that their voices are heard because they’ve been silenced for so damn long.
A few years ago, I met with my colleague who is the Native American coordinator at school where I teach, and I told her that I wanted to incorporate more Native American authors into my curriculum but I didn’t want to “get things wrong” because I felt guilty that I was speaking to Native American students as though I was the authority of their culture. Although I was coming from a place of concern and cultural sensitivity, my colleague kindly and honestly told me that the guilt and hesitation I’m feeling is part of my privilege. She said that there is nothing bad that can come from incorporating Native American culture into your curriculum and that not doing so because you are afraid is just as harmful other people who pretend that the genocide and suppression of Indigenous culture has never happened.
I needed to re-visit that conversation in my head. I am a private person and I don’t share the extent of my personal values, political affiliations, and religious beliefs with anyone aside for my sister and my husband. But at what point is my fear-driven silence to speak out just as harmful as the hateful vocal people who spout their racist beliefs for the whole world to see? At what point is my silence no better than the many silent Germans who knew that their country was persecuting Jews and other “undesirables” but did nothing and said nothing because they feared the consequences of speaking out?
I am not saying that 2020’s America is like Hitler’s Germany, but I’m afraid that it could become that in the future.
If white people like me cannot recognize that our laws, our systems, and our cultural values (our “society”) contribute to systematic racism, then in a few years we’ll be looking at a country that is more divisive and more toxic than it is right now. There are no easy solutions right now and I have many more thoughts on the matter which I’ll privately analyze while I continue training.
But I do have one answer to past-me from three years ago when she asked the question: “Should I teach more Native American literature in my classroom despite not being an authority on Native American culture?”
Yes. God yes. Not doing so is aiding in the cultural suppression that you claim to vehemently hate. But instead of merely teaching literature by non-white authors, also educate yourself on your own privilege. Listen to the voices that are yelling at the top of their lungs. Hear their anger. Hear their frustration. Hear their stories. Then decide what you can do to be an ally to their cause. To hold the megaphone so they can yell above the racist scum in this world who believe that having less melanin in their skin somehow makes them better than anyone else.
I am a teacher. I am a white woman. I have a responsibility to instruct the next generation of people and teach them how to be better than the previous generation.
However, in order to do that sometimes I need to shut up, listen, and learn.