Many of us can recall a time when they walked into unfamiliar territory; whether it was a party, a new school or a new job. One of the first things we do when in that circumstance is scan for the familiar. Maybe there is a familiar conversation that you interject yourself in. Maybe there is a familiar look you share with someone else. Maybe there is another who like you, walked into an unfamiliar space. Finding the familiar when an outsider is part of the human experience. It is most certainly a part of the African-American experience in America.
For Black people, we often enter spaces not meant for us. Maybe it’s a school, a church or a supermarket… these institutions and venues may be open for all, however, you can tell if a place is for you by the feels you take up upon entry. When I was a kid, my father took me to the barbershop and at a young age, I knew that space was for me and others like me. Maybe it was WDASFM in Philly playing Anita Baker or the Whispers on the radio… maybe it was the Ebony and Jet magazines on the tables for the customers waiting for their turn that did it… Maybe it was the conversations had about Black manhood and all things in between… When I walked in that barbershop, I knew that was a space for me. The same wasn’t necessarily true when I walked into schools or other institutions or establishments and I knew the difference.
Many of those places were (and still are) white institutional spaces. Such spaces are characterized by normalizing white racial superiority, excluding non-Whites from positions of power, and the highest value placed on Europeanized norms, learning styles and knowledge. A regular part of the Black experience is having to frequent these spaces and scanning the space for another individual like yourself. The more “exclusive” such spaces were, the greater the scanning and possibly the stronger the comradery with one like yourself – another Black person or a person of color who, for one reason or another, joins you in this space. I would argue that this experience is common for all people of color. Whenever I am in this situation and I find another Black person with me in that space, there is an instinctive reaction within our collective beings where our eyes locked and there is an acknowledgment and recognition that we “see” each other even if the whole room does not. You best believe the same is true for two Black educators who find each other in schools.
As a Black man, involving myself in education in any capacity is nothing new. However you’ll never find us in large numbers; specifically the whiter the student population. It’s because we’re not hired. I argue (confidently) that the whiter the school district with respect to the student population, the less likely you will find Black educators. So when Black people see each other, we will acknowledge each other, associated with one another, and often times befriend each other. We may not have ever seen each other before and our experiences may be completely different but the recognition of our Blackness in a White institutional space can and often times does bring us together with the commonality exposes is how much of the educational space does not belong to us. If we find that there are multiple Black people or people of color amongst educators in a school, quite naturally we form a de-facto delegation and/or caucus meant to support each other in various ways. And often times will conference with one another; not a formal meeting held in a classroom or in the library, but rather a meeting brought together by fate in the form of running into each other in the hallway, where we have conversations… long enough to give another member of the caucus time to run into us in the hallway and join the conversation. And I can’t speak for anybody else but I can tell you that in cases where I was caucusing with my fellow Black educators or other educators of color, that when White people walked by and saw us talking, they gave a look. This look is it given by all some White educators. I say some because some White folks walk by and see a group of educators talking in the hallway. And there are others who walked by and give looks or make snide remarks as if we were planning the next revolution… And maybe we are, but not the revolution some might think. We’re not looking to destroy our schools. In fact we’re looking to improve them on behalf of the students and families; hopefully, others are looking to do the same.
What is true is that certain conversations and certain supports can only be gathered in spaces that like-minded and folks with shared experiences create for ourselves. The same is true for Black educators. And no one should be insecure if they see a group of educators who happens to be African-American or of some color coming together to discuss anything.
So the next time you walk past Black educators or educators of color who are gathered together to discuss something and you’re curious as to why that is or what it is that they’re discussing, or why don’t such jovial interactions happen with you or other Whites, keep these items in mind as you walk by them:
- Black educators and educators of color need their own spaces within White institutional spaces that traditionally weren’t created for them and simply tolerate them. We create such spaces within a space out of a need for support, affirmation, and advising. No different from spaces designed for women or people of a specific religious persuasion. We’re not racist or segregationist… we simply need a space for us where we can get what we cannot in a White institutional space.
- All conversations are not for White consumption. It is not about keeping secrets about rebellions and insurrections. Quite honestly, some conversations of a cultural and historical sensitivity belong in-house. The same way I would relegate certain discussions about sensitive information with a select group of people, Black people, and educators of color are often the same way. It may not be because we think you’re racist. However, everyone’s racial IQ and awareness may not be suitable for conversations of a culturally sensitive nature – or otherwise. For example, there is a nuance to a Bill Cosby conversation or a Brett Kavanaugh conversation that White people may or may not be aware of, and we don’t always feel like explaining it when folks are aware of the nuance.
- Indeed, we are a caucus; an informal network of various supports. We share information; both internal and external knowledge. We share where to find good food and where to find your next job. We write recommendation letters, refer each other Black and other minority businesses, refer each other to other educators of color and university researchers of color for professional development and how to best handle microaggressions and racism when it knocks on our front door. We are a resource to one another.
- We do talk about a revolution in the district. We speak about culturally relevant curriculum and instruction. We talk about how to increase educators of color within the district. We talk about teaching social justice and inspiring student to pursue it. We do this because as Black educators, we have a passion for Black children and other children of color. Other educators of color share the same passion. It isn’t White educators don’t, but it is different for us. So if there are problems and concerns within the school, rest assured that we gather, whether formally or informally, to discuss our role in supporting our colleagues, our students, and the school community.
- Our gatherings aren’t anti-white or self-segregating. I cannot reiterate this point enough. Self-segregation would mean that we wouldn’t work where White people work. This is damn near impossible. Anyone who thinks that our gatherings are to segregate ourselves is insecure. These are the same people who question why there are Black award shows. It’s because our value, our concerns, and our voice do not receive the same level of regard that we give ourselves. We still flow in White institutional spaces… it is impossible not to. However, we create our own spaces to gain strength and to recover.
- White people gather together in conversation without people of color often and it is not frowned upon. Black people don’t immediately think Klan meeting when White educators gather together. Don’t assume the worse with us either.
- Sometimes, we need someone to shoot the breeze with on a different level. Sure… Black people are not a monolith, but if I need to complain about the food at a soul food spot or if I wanna talk about the latest Blackish episode or if I need to refer someone to a Desus and Mero GIF, I more than likely will wait to speak with my Black cohort. That’s not to say that White folks don’t watch Blackish or don’t know who Desus and Mero are. However… sometimes a conversation within the caucus is better to have.
- Conversations can be racially neutral. What I mean by that is, we can talk about issues that are common to all people… poor parenting, kids being lazy, parents enabling children, and not necessarily worry about having to account for racial presuppositions. This is not to say that there aren’t Black people who push respectability politics and who believe racial pathologies that are fallacies. However, we can sift through how race plays a role in how circumstances come about and how behaviors are a reaction to the problem and not the sole basis of a problem. It’s not that all White people automatically think “culture of poverty.” However, not all White educators wear their implicit bias on their sleeves.
Carving our own space as Black educators, or educators of color is crucial for our ability to address the needs of our students and, quite honestly, for our own mental health as educators. When you are only one a few Black educators in a building, Black students and parents tend to seek you out and overburden you with their needs. The burnout may come fast and furious if we are without the necessary supports and resources we only receive when amongst each other. Respect the spaces we carve for ourselves and don’t immediately rush to judgment. Know that our convening is for the benefit of our children and the community. Know that we emerge from these spaces stronger and better equipped to handle all the challenges that are before us.
Let’s Continue to Press Towards the Mark!