Teaching Tolerance: What Anti-racism Really Means for Educators

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Plus de bonus By JAMILAH PITTS, Published in Teaching Tolerance on September 11, 2020

A continué “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you do not see.”

—James Baldwin

Anti-racist work in all schools is essential. It is the exercise of hope, the practice of undoing and dismantling systems of oppression, the practice of freedom and of truth-telling. Anti-racist work is the practice of healing and of restoring; it is a practice of love.

We live in a time where it is increasingly clear that Black lives are deeply undervalued and violently treated. And as the words anti-racist and equity become dangerously trendy, educators should pause and grapple with what they truly mean.

It is important that we have a shared understanding of what anti-racism in schools looks like, that we have an understanding of what it is not, and that we embrace the understanding that anti-racist work is never completely finished, nor does it always look the same. I hope, however, we may begin to think about anti-racist work in schools in ways that are holistic and practical. 

Anti-racist educators believe in love. 

Many educators operate from the premise that they love their students. In fact, many harmful and violent teachers operate from a place of “love.” But anti-racist educators understand that love and silence are deeply contradictory. The love that underpins our practice is not the form of love often associated with passivity and inaction. For anti-racist educators, love is action. Love is sharp. Love is truth-telling. Love is fighting for what it is right. Love is doing what is right. 

Anti-racist educators, particularly those who teach Black students, understand that part of the act of love is understanding what this country has intentionally done—and continues to do—to Black bodies. It is love that compels our practices. 

Anti-racist educators understand that, in love, they must never be silent. Ever. Anti-racist educators understand that their positions as teachers, leaders, policymakers and social workers are positions of great privilege and power, and that they have the ability to leave this world better than they found it. 

Anti-racist educators study and are committed to deepening their critical consciousness.

Anti-racist educators understand that they must be lifelong learners. They believe in the power of developing a critical consciousness, which comes from reading, from studying, from deep scholarship, from humility, from listening to and engaging with others, and from constantly examining and re-examining their own ideas, beliefs and truths. 

Educators who are seeking to be anti-racist must understand the nuanced, complex, deliberate design of racism in the United States and across the diaspora. Educators in the United States who are seeking to be anti-racist have to acknowledge and recognize that this country was built upon racist principles. They must be willing to commit to a lifestyle of studying what racism looks like in all its forms. 

This means that we have to know how to identify racism; how racism is carried out and built in systems and structures; how people hold, sustain, maintain and perpetuate racism; and how people of color can internalize racism.

Anti-racist educators know and continue to seek out the names of those who are never called upon and the work that is hardly ever revered. They recognize that we should study more deeply the tactics of the Black Panther Party and the Freedom Schools. Dr. Gholdy Muhammad is a true leader and scholar-warrior in this regard, as her work focuses on the ways the Black Literary Societies of the early 1800s operated and creates a framework for how we should be using the power of literacy to teach and empower Black students. 

Anti-racist educators believe in the intellectual power of teaching. They believe they have to honor the practice and take teaching very, very seriously because they know and understand how schools have been used either to oppress or to liberate. 

Anti-racist educators move away from checklists and embrace a holistic approach. 

Anti-racist education and anti-racist schooling cannot be packaged or prescribed, arranged into a checklist, rubric or formula. Anti-racist educators understand that anti-racist work begins with the self.  They begin by grappling with their beliefs, mindsets, philosophies and biases about the world, education and their students. They work to become conscious of the intentional, multiple ways schools mirror society and how all aspects of school systems are designed to uphold the oppressive aims of the society in which they operate. 

Anti-racist educators recognize that schools are doing exactly what they were built to do in this country: Exclude. Silence. Erase. Promote white supremacy. They recognize, therefore, that upending racism in schools will end schooling practices as we have come to know them.  

To think about all of the parts of schooling, not just the classroom, anti-racist educators take a holistic approach and consider many dimensions of schooling through an anti-racist, anti-oppressive lens. These dimensions include:

  • The demographics of staff, particularly in schools with predominantly BIPOC students 
  • School leadership and paths to school leadership 
  • School governance (e.g., network and district leadership)
  • School curriculum 
  • Special education 
  • Teaching and learning practices 
  • Definitions and measurements of academic success 
  • Definitions and measurements of teacher success 
  • Professional development 
  • New-teacher training and support 
  • The wellness of teachers, staff and students 
  • School mission and vision statements 
  • School, network and district policies 
  • School culture and approaches to discipline
  • School infrastructure 
  • Allocation of resources and budget

It is important we recognize this list is not exhaustive. In order to be anti- racist educators, we must be steadfast and consistent and consider all aspects of schooling. 

We have to commit to continuously evolving, pushing back, studying, engaging in critical discourse with others, examining what is happening in our minds and bodies, and listening to students. Anti-racist educators understand that an anti-racist approach to schooling could very well mean an ending to schools as we know them. They understand this is how we begin to get free.

Anti-racism is healing and love in action. 

The work of anti-racism in schools is incomplete without an understanding of the integral role that healing must play in the practices of freedom. Healers are people who remove harm and reduce the impact of violence, people who restore and repair. 

The greatest of healers consider the whole person and seek to get to the heart of the matter. Anti-racist educators understand that all forms of oppression are connected, that it is not possible to care about racism and disregard the violence in sexism, classism, homophobia and more. The hearts of anti-racist advocates push us to be concerned for all violations of human rights. 

The ways that we as educators must care for ourselves and create educational spaces that center healing our students’ bodies is crucial. We must create educational spaces that tend to the harm and violence that has been enacted against BIPOC bodies and minds—specifically those of our children. Anti-racist educators recognize that this is the work of undoing, of dismantling, of liberating, of healing and of truth-telling. This is our collective work.


About the Author

Jamilah Pitts is an educational consultant and equity and justice strategist whose work centers the liberation, healing and holistic development of youth, particularly children of color. She is also a member of the Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board.

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