Identity Work

Identity Work

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-5649-8.ch002
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The authors describe the first crucial step in antiracist teacher professional development – developing a deep understanding of one's identity. After providing the theoretical framework behind this approach and sharing their own stories of their identity development as antiracist educators, the authors describe the curricular approaches they used to engage teachers in exploring the self. They also share the outcomes of these efforts and the tensions and dilemmas that arise when supporting teachers to examine their identities in the process of becoming antiracist educators.
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I am a third-generation native of Washington, DC, grandchild of the Great Migration of Black people from South Carolina, Virginia, and eastern Tennessee, and enslaved people from Gabon. In 2012 after an uncomfortable exchange with white P-12 classroom teachers in our master’s degree program, I wrote the following poem:

The reason we are not post-racial

(in response to “The Help” and all of its apologists)

human relations being what they are

it is possible that my grandmother loved you

as much as you think she did

she was always described

by family

and church members

as loving and kind

she would have felt warmly toward you

if your mother were kind and respectful

and if you imitated your mother’s example.

if you were a snot and cute

and under the age of six

she would have forgiven your bratty ways

but be clear:

the only reason

she labored

in your mother’s house

is because

she loved us more

My parents taught me that Black is beautiful; that natural hair is “better;” that white people are not superior partly because – globally – People of Color outnumber whites; and that sometimes, in an employment setting, it can be easier to work with whites than with People of Color.

For first through third grades my family lived in Pittsburgh, PA. In first grade we attended the Black school in the neighborhood. Second and third grades included adventures in school busing to the white school, where I had my first exposure to educational inequities. In Pennsylvania at the time teachers were allowed to practice corporal punishment; I was aware that the 3rd grade teacher was always unfairly hitting the Black boys from our neighborhood with rulers. We moved back to Washington and lived in an affluent white neighborhood in Ward 3 that was experimenting with housing desegregation, making us one of the few Black families living within the school’s boundaries. The school was responding to a desegregation lawsuit by busing Black kids from crowded all-Black schools in Southeast to under-enrolled white schools in Ward 3. As a result, my fourth grade teacher was under my Dad’s surveillance because she was openly racist. He would often show up in the window of her classroom door to let her know he was watching.

That same year, my “friend” referred to my mother as a Black bitch; Mom told me the next time to hit her with a brick. I was shocked since we had heard non-violent messages all of our lives. Later that same school year, Dr. King was assassinated on Thursday, April 4. On Friday April 5, as the city was aflame with riots continuing from the night before, our fourth grade teacher tried to be overly solicitous of the Black students in class until one of the girls bused in from Southeast said, “My mother told me not to talk to white people today.” My Mom also first taught me about apartheid in South Africa and said she wished all of the white South Africans were driven into the ocean to their deaths – another shocking sentiment. I learned later that we were targeted with vandalism by white teen boys in the neighborhood, prompting Mom and Dad to move the following year to an intentionally racially integrated neighborhood.

By middle school and high school, DC was thoroughly Chocolate City, so the racialized tensions were more muted, even though I continued to live, attend school, and worship in racially integrated settings. My tensions around race tended to have more to do with identity formation in adolescence and making decisions about which white friends could be trusted. Meanwhile, I loved it when Howard University students and other older Black people would call me “Little Sister” in passing, and when I got affirmation about being a dark-skinned, very skinny, nappy-headed female because despite the rhetoric, many of my peers and many elders did not truly believe that Black was beautiful. It was in a cosmopolitan setting such as DC that I got a lot more “love” than other Black girls of that era.

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