I recently facilitated a professional learning session for more than a dozen district leaders in the Midwest aimed at pushing them to think about implicit and explicit biases and how they play out in their schools. At one point during our day together, I shared a personal story with the group, all of whom were white. I told them about a Twitter post that my adult son had sent me the other day. Written by a graduate school application reviewer, it read, “Every grad school application I review from a person of color mentions childhood trauma. We have really been conditioned to showcase our pain for white academics.”
A response to the post asked, “Has anyone written about the way we have to pimp out our trauma to get funding and access to institutional learning?”
“That’s crazy!” I exclaimed to the group. Reading that post, I explained, reminded me of how I had used the trauma I lived as a boy of color growing up in the Bronx to get myself into college. Writing about that experience in my essay was the only way I thought I could get into college, I explained, the only thing that I thought would make me stand out.
I wondered aloud to the group, “How often have I used my trauma in this way? What stereotypes am I perpetuating by doing that?”
Every week I enter rooms full of school system leaders across the country as the expert on how to talk about the implicit and explicit biases that live in our schools and in our communities, and I try to guide them in unraveling their own biases and how they affect their work as educational leaders.
Over time, I have come to realize that acting solely as the expert on leading for equity telling education leaders what they need to do is not in their best interest, or mine. As a facilitator, I need to make it clear that I have as much to learn as they do. We all have the responsibility to unpack what we see, hear, and experience. I have found that the more visible I am with my learning and reflection, the stronger our conversations are as a group. The more I work to build empathy and understanding in myself, the better I am able to build that in others. That has meant explaining that as a man of color, I have my own work to do in the effort to examine and dismantle systemic racism, that I need to push myself to become more aware of the stereotypes I live, so that I can try not to perpetuate them in my facilitation and in my daily life.
For example, I reflect on what it means for me that when I lead sessions in rooms full of predominately white people, I wonder if I am subconsciously looking for their approval, their validation? I reflect on how that might connect to the fact that most of the teachers in my life, most of my supervisors, have been white women. What do I need to do to move beyond that, to not feel like I need to apologize for who I am and what I stand for, to not perpetuate an aspect of institutional bias?
Layer that with my experience raising a young man of color who is looking to me for guidance as he comes into his own racial consciousness. In our conversation about the Tweet, we realized that he had done the same thing with his college application. Now you have two generations who are pimping out their personal experiences because somewhere along the way I was taught to do that, and I unwittingly taught my son to do that. If I were to go back in time, I told the group of district leaders, I would write a college essay that highlights my identity. I am so much more than my childhood trauma. I don’t know if that would have gotten me into the school of my choice, but that is me taking a stance. This is what my son and I are working through together.
There are some critical questions that I urge facilitators of professional learning around equity, particularly racial equity, to ask themselves, questions that I try to keep top of mind and reflect on myself and with the groups I am supporting: Am I challenging my own biases and notions of race and of myself? Am I continuously pushing my own learning so that I can more effectively push the thinking of each person in the room? Is my public reflection on my personal experiences furthering others’ learning? Struggling with these questions helps move the work forward. If I don’t push myself, how can I expect that of the leaders I support?