My Lived Racial History by Daniel Wajnowski
Equity is the single most compelling and complicating topic facing American education today. The Achievement Gap may be the numerical face of education’s failings in equity, but the faces and lives of its students and families are far more important than any one data point. Education may be the answer to leveling playing fields and providing access, but it needs people to lead it there. My lived racial history, both in and out of educational systems, is blind to experiences of challenge, hardship, or inequity. Yet, I must somehow be a leader who advocates for such equity. How then do I - a privileged, white, male - dare to make any sense of any of these deficiencies let alone assume I can somehow be an advocate for its change?
In a system created for me, it is imperative that I first acknowledge that such a system exists. This is much harder to actually do for it supposes that in acknowledging a preferential system, one can understand its full capabilities and consequences. That is not so easily done. Was I good athlete in junior high or were others shunned from all-star teams because I fit the town’s idea of success? Were my small time pranks in school overlooked because I was a “safe” student, a good kid from a good background? Was my name innocuous enough to merit attention on job applications thus allowing for me to gain invaluable early work experience that set the foundation for a life of real world experiences to build from? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” and it most certainly must have been at least once, how can I ever begin to quantify the benefits of a system designed so perfectly that my very questioning seems to pull it apart?
Work hard, be prepared, and be welcomed. These have been the critical components my lived racial experience. I cannot pretend that race factored in my life during my early years. I cannot mock the lived experiences of others by trying to say I noticed race in my pre-teen years. Growing up I witnessed “otherness.” I was part of the Hip-Hop generation who adored the cool oozing from MTV music videos and presumed to understand a world that was not mine. I played in the basketball league on the “other side of town” where my brother was (hopefully) affectionately nicknamed Opie. We were white and they were black. It seemed pretty simple. However, any experience with otherness was mitigated by the fact that my default was sheltered, white, and fairly privileged.
While I grew up very plain, my world has slowly filled with color - lots of varied colors. At fifteen years old, I had my first job in anything associated with education as a camp counselor for West Haven Parks and Recreation. The students attending were primarily of color and from a lower socio-economic status than my family. This was one of my first glimpses into otherness, although at that time my teenage brain was hardly aware. College was whitewashed, although I do not find that to be very surprising given my educational trajectory or the state of New England colleges in the early 2000’s. As I finished college, my family had grown. I had a biracial nephew and my brother had been dating one of my best friends who was of African-American, Japanese, and Puerto Rican descent. I was hired to teach in an urban district at a school composed of over 80% students of color. I married a Puerto Rican woman. These experiences give me no claim, but humble my previous privilege and force me to look and reckon. While all of this happened, I began to read incessantly about race and soon enough entered into my own conversations about it.
These aforementioned moments have been critical to my adult, lived racial experience. However, does this brief life timeline make me some racially sensitive expert? Absolutely not. Yet, it is through these beautiful sets of circumstances and experiences that I have gotten to experience my own courageous conversations naturally. Race is something present in my family’s life now unlike it was when I grew up. These experiences have afforded me new perspectives and quite frankly, an awakening. As a result of purposely engaging in this reflection, I expanded my conversations beyond my inner familial circle. I learned that there are three main components a leader must value at all times especially when considering the lived racial experiences of another.
Listen. One man I spoke with, a local minister and NHPS youth worker, told me that one of the keys of mentoring young, black youth, is to help them learn to listen to one another. We had a very engaging conversation about race and I was excited to share with him a debate I had designed in my English class that could not have landed more perfectly in black history month. Student groups were assigned one of four people: Marcus Garvey, Booker T Washington, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. While he mentioned how impressed he was over the selections I made, he was more interested in listening to how the students perceived these voices from generations ago. He listened to how they brought these voices to life again. We spoke after the debate and he surprised me again by pointing out that it was when the students really listened to one another that the debate performed highly. Listening acted as a means of showing you care enough about the other person to consider who they are and start to share their experiences.
Talk. I am borrowing this idea from Glen Singleton’s Courageous Conversations, but it is particularly apt for the following example. During one poignant conversation with my principal, we discussed our impressions of recent faculty conversations regarding the development of a school Instructional Focus. One theme we kept coming back to was a desire on the part of several faculty members to focus exclusively on student behaviors. Our school is not riddled with suspensions, fights, or other typical indicators of poor behavior, yet this dominated portions of our faculty discussion. I asked my principal, an African-American 25+ year veteran in this district, if she thought this had anything to do with an overwhelming white and tenured faculty interacting with a student population overwhelmingly of color. She agreed that this is a concern of hers as well as one she feels personally when addressed by certain faculty members. She expressed concern over their respect for her, her authority, and her leadership style - and believes that race may play a part in this. As we spoke, it became clear that our faculty may not be race conscious. Instead, we may be ignoring race, or worse, we they may be showing racial biases in our attitudes and behaviors. One of the critical first steps of sharing one’s lived racial experiences is to begin by taking that courageous first step by engaging in conversation. These conversations will keep ideas alive and present in the day to day interactions between adults and students and between the adults themselves.
Act. After several informal conversations with people both close to me and strangers, I have learned that our racial histories will inevitably always vary. I have met people advantaged like me and ignorant. Several people I spoke with told me stories of abject and outright racism. Then there were stories like my principal told me. In those stories the racism is not outright, but presents as something unsettling, below the surface, but challenging to those confronted. Her stories reminded me of the children and students I hypothesized about earlier - how much do these small, seemingly nondescript manifestations of bias or privilege, alter something like one’s ease of access, job performance, or even quality of life?
Reflecting upon my experiences and conversations, I know that as a leader I must act. Being an advocate for equity and change is nothing if you do not act and promote action. Change will not manifest itself through listening alone and talking is never enough. They are important first steps, but only steps. People desire, and society requires, action. As an educator, I must live that action and grow that capacity in those around me so we may all be agents of change.