Seeing Whiteness In School

Posted on August 17, 2019


For the past eight months, I’ve been working on a research project. As an anti-racist teacher, I wanted to learn first-hand about the school experiences of my students of color. To find out some answers to this question, I interviewed a few dozen former students of color on the question, “How would you say whiteness–whatever that means to you–influenced your K-12 educational experiences?”

I have let two traditional teachings provide the ethical framework for my work.

1. The Lakota phrase, Mitakuye Oyasin, taught to me by my medicine elders, including West Wind Wolf, usually translated as “All My Relations.” This phrase is often repeated during sacred ceremonies as a reminder that one is related to all beings on earth. I give respect and gratitude for the wise words of my elders.

2. The Lovingkindness Meditation, that I learned from Dr. Dzung Vo’s website, Mindfulness for Teens, which starts with oneself and moves to “all beings,” with the meditation, “May you be happy. May you be well. May you be free from suffering. May you be at peace.” This mantra is at the heart of my daily mindfulness practices. I find it to be an excellent ethical code for guiding my interactions with others. I am truly grateful for the contributions Dr. Vo’s work has made to my life and work.

For eight months, I have had the honor and privilege to listen to the voices of students who span the full 25 years I spent in the high school English classroom–and a few years before I arrived. It has been a humbling, painful, warm, funny, revealing, healing, and deeply human experience. I am hugely grateful to everyone who spoke with me. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, from deep in my heart.

The seventeen participants were born between the years of 1969-2002 and come from the graduating classes of: 1988, 1992, 1993, 1996, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2011, 2015, 2016, 2018, and 2019.

The stories, like the people telling them, are amazing. Although it will take me years to process everything I’ve heard, because I’m working with a group of artists toward an October gallery opening, I’m now in the process of distilling 158 pages of interviews into a 40-minute, live performance.

My choices of structure, voice, and performance style are inspired by Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology first-person monologues in verse, by Sandra Cisneros’ vignettes in her novel, The House on Mango Street, and the one-woman, monologue plays by Anna Deveare Smith and Jane Martin.

I am reading and rereading the words of participants to find the essence of their stories, a kernel of truth, the poetry of their language–so that when audience members hear their words, they will understand a little bit more about the effects of white supremacy on non-white students. I do not add to or change the words of participants. The cuts I make are to reveal and amplify the meaning behind the stories.

Why am I doing this work?

For the answer to this question, I must turn again to a traditional Indigenous phrase I learned from my medicine elder, West Wind Wolf:

“I am sending my voice because I want the people to live.”

Stay tuned for information on the October gallery opening.