Can We Ask Inelegant Questions about Antiracism©? (Pt.1 of 7)
Updated: Jun 17
Author's note: The is the first post in a 7-part series in which I respond to questions raised about Antiracism© written in an opinion piece by Robert Pondiscio and published by the Fordham Institute titled: I believe “antiracism” is misguided. Can I still teach Black children? My goal in composing this series of opinion essays is to flesh out my own thinking. My goal in posting this series of opinion essays is to encourage others to push past any constraints they may be encountering to also consider issues thoughtfully and with the dutiful embrace of nuance. If you are interested in answering these questions, you are invited to do so by recording your thoughts on a survey which can be accessed at bit.ly/InelegantQuestions.
I am an anti-racist with deep concerns about Anti-racism©, and I believe we should be willing to engage critical and even inelegant questions about the ideas, premises, and principles that define efforts made in the name of racial justice.
For more than a decade, I've worked as an Equity-focused technical assistance and professional development (PD) provider. In the PD spaces I facilitate as well as in my professional thought-partnerships, I work closely with educators who are seeking to close the gaps among student groups in terms of performance and achievement. I advocate for Culturally Responsive Education in the classroom, an approach to teaching designed to leverage the awareness of culture so that students have fairer opportunities to draw on their backgrounds, identities, and the cultural fluencies therein in order to show their competence in academic learning.
In PD, I try to invite what I call good-faith questions and debate because I have found that when educators can ask their own questions, even inelegantly, they are more likely to be engaged themselves and able to construct understandings that can be operationalized in practice.
I define inelegant questions as the questions we may be afraid to ask for fear of harsh rebuke, or out of worry that we might stumble clumsily through a not-yet-fully-developed thought... or ashamed to ask because we might think we're expected to already know... or nervous to ask because we think it may betray some hidden bias. Inelegant questions are an opportunity for me to build trust and understanding—understanding both for the teachers I'm supporting and for myself. I end up growing as a PD provider when engaging with the inelegant questions of educators because they are often practice-focused—meaning they are the questions that teachers struggle with when they are searching for insights that would direct the application of the concepts in play. This is part of what I most love about the work of education and teaching in particular. There's a bottom line to it: at some point the PD should yield an improved capacity to produce rigorous and engaging learning experiences for students... at least this is what I've always believed.
I invite everyone to read an opinion piece written by Robert Pondiscio and published on the Fordham Institute website titled "I believe “antiracism” is misguided. Can I still teach Black children?" I found it compelling. Mr. Pondiscio is a teacher, and he strikes me as bringing an antiracist motivation to the piece in which he asks critical and inelegant questions about Antiracism©.
I think these are questions we can and should be asking in clarifying our individual and collective understandings of what is good for students. Most of the educators I work with agree that we should be carefully considering race and identity as a factor in the multivariate equation of Equity in educational opportunity. When it comes to matters of such great consequence—matters that are inherently nuanced—our understandings are not distinguished by our certainty nor diminished by our doubts. Our understandings are enriched by good-faith debate. Any convictions that can't be questioned and discussed may devolve into dogma... and dogma is stifling and dangerous.
Mr. Pondiscio's piece (among others) raises an essential question: Can one be skeptical about the premise and process of Antiracism© and still be antiracist? Is it necessary that I concede to a wholesale acceptance of the Antiracism© arguments in order to be a person of goodwill who advocates for racial justice? I think a lot of educators are also asking these and other similarly inelegant questions. If I'm somehow misinterpreting Mr. Pondiscio and/or his arguments, or if I have a blind spot(s) that obscure my vision, I welcome any enlightened direction.
As an educator trained in the social science research methodologies, I am inclined to survey the thoughts and opinions of others. I have taken questions with only minimal rephrasing from Mr. Pondiscio's opinion piece, and I am interested in knowing how other educators would answer these questions. I invite all to read Mr. Pondiscio's piece and then respond to some or all of these five questions which you can answer in this survey. All responders will remain anonymous. You will be required to log in through Google, but I will neither collect nor have access to any identifying information. I propose to leave this survey up for three months and publish my findings publicly after I code and analyze the data. I am primarily appealing to educators and teachers specifically for survey participation. Finally, if you choose to participate, you need not feel compelled to answer all of the questions, and you can return to the survey to add to and edit/revise your responses until the survey is closed.
The questions are:
1. Is a professed commitment to the tenets of "Antiracism" now non-negotiable in the teaching profession? Are those who hold different views and ideals (e.g. colorblindness) about student expectations, pedagogical practice, and school culture no longer welcome to lead classrooms with Black and Brown children?
2. "If I define 'equity' as working toward an America where race no longer describes or limits us; if I reject the idea expressed by White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo and others that to be White is to be inherently racist and a beneficiary of unearned privileges; if I hold to a definition of racism that is manifested in behavior, not an immutable characteristic of my race over which I have no control, am I no longer fit to teach Black and Brown children?"
3. Does standard practice in "Antiracist" pedagogy now insist that we view students exclusively or even primarily through the lens of their race? What if I believe that fixing institutions that routinely fail Black and Brown children is just as important as changing racial attitudes? If I do not believe that white supremacy is the primary stumbling block to educational progress, if I think that literacy—not antiracism—is the last word in educational equity, if I’m unwilling to accept uncritically the new antiracism orthodoxy, am I still welcome in classrooms where all or most of the students are not White?
4. Is it absolute that teachers should conceive of themselves primarily as social engineers whose responsibility is to dismantle “systemic racism” in the name of “equity”? If so, in what ways are teachers required to disrupt, dismantle, or overthrow oppressive systems? Are teachers necessarily revolutionaries? Does resisting a revolutionary ethos render individuals unfit to teach?
5. What are the non-negotiable beliefs that a teacher must have to stand in front of a classroom where all or most of the students are Black or Brown? What beliefs are disqualifying?
You can find the survey here: SURVEY LINK
I too will answer these questions, and I will do so in public view in a series of blog posts—though I am not requesting that anyone else feel compelled to reveal their own responses in the same way.
I realize that by presenting these questions, a gesture calling for open debate and encouraging free speech, some may accuse me of justifying white supremacy. (I myself might have accused someone of this not very long ago.) I also understand that some might say the racial status quo in the United States is comfortable for most Whites and therefore anything that serves White comfort is suspect; and that by presenting these questions I may be centering whiteness and the comfort of White educators thus undermining the racial and social justice movements. Many will see these as acts of mine as heresy—even traitorous. I can only offer that I'm doing so with the most conscious and clear intentions possible for me. I am seeking to understand.
I am taking great effort as I compose this post to ensure that I am as minimally driven by my own ego as possible for me. I sincerely believe that I am presenting these questions in the effort to take some measure of the education community's position on what I perceive as the single most important question facing our profession currently: that being the question of how to redress the unfair and inequitable circumstances and patterns that have squandered generations of talent and intellect of students? This stirs my social science research soul... and thus I risk offending and ensuing ostracization in the effort to enrich my understanding.
But therein lies the essence of this matter—which is: Can we ask the inelegant questions, the ones that reveal in the very asking a non-conforming perspective? Can we consider arguments and counter-arguments? Can we consider that an antiracist might oppose elements of Antiracism© and yet, still be antiracist in spirit, word, and deeds?
I suppose I'm answering my own question by proposing Mr. Pondiscio's question in a public space—a small gesture of independent thinking. I neither suggest to have the right answers or even all the right questions; but I do have the will to inquire... to see better. I invite educators to join me by considering these questions yourselves.
Even if the heartbeat of racism is denial, that doesn’t mean that every denial is racist.
I am an anti-racist who opposes Anti-racism©, and I believe we should be willing to engage critical and even inelegant questions about the ideas, premises, and principles that define efforts made in the name of racial justice.
Adeyemi Stembridge, PhD