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Oh Say, Can You See?

Updated: Oct 1, 2021

Some people mistakenly take the "colorblind" approach to confronting racism, which isn't so much confronting racism as performing forced obliviousness to its existence.

Examples from public school: I treat all my students equally / I don't see color

Colorblindness is mythical. Unless you're physically blind, you see color. So to say that you do not or convince yourself that you do not means that you are choosing to ignore the social/cultural/political/economic realities of your students. Our students are not the same, and they do not need the same things. "Treating kids equally" and colorblindness just sound nicer than what they really are, which is confirmation bias. A get-out-of-jail-free pass for doing the much harder work of seeing our students for exactly who they are, the value of their culture, and what societal forces they are up against due to factors outside of their control.

The harder choice is to do something called developing a critical lens. Many of us already have a critical lens of some sort. If you think about an engineer you know, you may notice how that engineer seems to view the world through an engineering lens. Someone of devout faith may view the world through a religious lens. In his infamous commencement address "This Is Water," David Foster Wallace says the following: "There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship." If we are serious about eliminating racism, we have to become intimate with it. Meaning, we have to come to understand how intimate we have always been with it. We have to return to the altar in our mind, which is where it all will happen...our confession, our penance, our learning, our growth.

Doing this work means developing a critical lens. Critical race theory started in law schools but has increasingly been used to analyze how racism is engrained in the fabric and system of the American society. CRT has five pillars:

(1) the centrality and intersectionality of racism,

(2) the challenge to dominant ideology,

(3) the commitment to social justice,

(4) the importance of experiential knowledge, and

(5) the use of an interdisciplinary perspective.

Essentially, it means recognizing how race is central to understanding people's experiences and outcomes and committing to cultural pluralism and social justice.

This process, if done correctly (meaning with intensity and frequently), will take someone through all the motions. It will put them in a rage, reduce them to tears, make them feel on edge, cause them to doubt things that were once important or central to their lives, question their relationships and social connections, reevaluate their life trajectory... This has been a long intro into a topic that has been on my mind. But as I wrote I realized the importance of worship as a motif. And I feel better prepared to articulate my feelings on the 4th of July and holidays, in general -- the celebration of which becomes different through the process of developing a critical lens.

I was fortunate enough, last October, to serve as a chaperone on a fellow teacher's annual trip to Washington, D.C. We had the opportunity to tour Frederick Douglass's estate, which was a stimulating experience. The house sits atop a hill -- Douglass named his residence Cedar Hill -- and overlooks the D.C. vista. It feels removed yet central all at once.

Douglass is likely familiar to many -- he wrote about his escape from slavery, learning how to read, and becoming a free man in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. He was an abolitionist and, in 1852, was asked to deliver a speech commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence. I have attached a link to the full speech here, and included an excerpt below:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

In the beginning of his speech, Douglass voices his thanks that the United States is a young country (76 at the time), alluding to a hope that the nation and its people can mature. 168 years after that date (so 244 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed), and I feel like Douglass' words ring just as true.

And so, for a few years, the celebration of Independence Day has felt just as Douglass describes a sham. To be a patriot is to worship at America's altar -- and not just in the glorious moments. To know, intimately, America's original sin, and to see it mutated into the new forms of that old evil...the school-to-prison pipeline, the war on drugs, the war on crime, mass incarceration.

James Baldwin articulated his patriotism in a similar way, declaring, I love America more than any other country in the world, and exactly for this reason, I reserve the right to criticize her perpetually. In my mind, Baldwin's sentiment reflects genuine patriotism. But in my reality, I feel that the performance of patriotism has been warped into a billboard with white people in Confederate bikinis and swimming trunks chomping on deep-fried turkey legs at the state fair. The patriotism that has caused me to feel repulsed by the American flag is more a celebration of white supremacy and the myths of freedom and justice than the strength of a nation. Not strength in military or nuclear capacities, but in a commitment to self-improvement and social uplift.

I cannot feel a sense of loyalty to any country that has not still afforded all its citizens full liberty and justice. Doing so is just one way in which white people will need to "give up power" in order to ensure that Black lives matter in America. A lot of the time, this "giving up" looks less like giving up physical property and more like choosing not to give power to the false narratives that dominate our institutions. In admitting error. In changing our approach from a supremacy-oriented one to a pluralistic one.

Developing a critical lens has helped me reframe the way I view culture. The actual practice of culture. White supremacy is an altar I still find myself returning to -- I can think of at least two times in the past few days when I've given power to white supremacy. And I believe that I need patriotism to mean untethering from white supremacy.

I know that most of us, this 4th of July weekend, will be doing one of two things: going to the beach to escape from quarantine or judging people who go to the beach during a pandemic. I want to challenge all of us to engage in an act of patriotism. Self-critique. And once we have identified one way in which we give power to white supremacy, to go about changing that, and to share how we are going about doing that.

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