A Modest Proposal For Your Education Conferences (By The One Black Educator You Know)
I’ve been holding this piece in my back pocket for a few years, but, due to the overwhelming need to ring these shots in the air, I have some advice for education conference organizers. I’ve attended dozens of conferences in the last six years, most often as the keynote or workshop presenter who brings up race, math, and teacher leadership. Each situation has a different context, but the average participant of color often whispers a common thread of complaints to me about the spaces they or their district pays for. It behooves organizers to get a good sense before wondering why educators of color won’t come to their events.
I freestyled a few of the complaints as a thread here, but some folks wanted something more extensive. I wish any of these things were just happening to me, but they’re not. Without further adieu, here’s a list of items we’d like to add to your code of conduct policies:
#1 — Just because two or more of us are gathered doesn’t mean any one of us is “starting trouble.” If we were, we wouldn’t tell you anyways.
This one almost always gets violated. I get it. When there are only a handful of people of color in a white-dominated conference, the odds of interruption are relatively high. However, the ways we see people interrupt make us feel less like you’re jumping into a conversation and more like we’re being closely watched in case we’re plotting against the rest of the attendees. Yes, we generally look like we’re having fun. Yes, we’re probably talking about how white the conference is.
No, our laughter isn’t an open invitation to come in and center yourself. People of color don’t suddenly become props for your show when you step into the circle.
#2 — Just because we present some information on stage doesn’t mean we’re accessible 24/7. We’ll smile cuz we want to, dance cuz we want to, laugh cuz we want to, etc.
If and when presenters and facilitators of color smile, it can mean any number of things. We do need personal space from time to time like any person would. As a presenter, I know I’ll probably doing more listening than speaking throughout an event. I also make it clear that I’m a human being, so I only do any of the aforementioned smiling, dancing, laughing when I feel like it, not when prompted or asked to do so. If we decide not to smile, that’s also not an indication that we’re not happy either. But humans who get treated like humans know this already.
#3 — We don’t work for “those” kids. We work for all of our kids. Just because you think “your” kids deserve a different education than ours doesn’t mean our positionality about this work has to be the same as yours.
So you think you talk equity but still refer to students outside of your school or district as “those kids.” There’s an ethos oft posed by a hodgepodge of racists who don’t understand the connection between how we treat any of our students in our society. Some of this conversation stems from competitive mindsets about our kids while others treat education like a quarantine from the lepers. Even those of us who teach at a school with predominantly students of color but have their biological children in different conditions need to rethink how we model equity. Constantly othering students about their needs while giving kids who we consider “ours” a more humane rendition of education is also an oppression, and we are its executors.
#4 — We’re trying to learn just like y’all. If we’re there to talk about race, it’s because we do it at the behest of the organization (that oft recognizes that y’all need it) or you decided to present on what you always present on instead of calling in / out your ppl.
Educators of color aren’t walking vessels of knowledge about racial issues to be sapped at will. Many of us will have a conversation about race with the right people, but it’s important to not take the kindness for obligation. We have a plethora of books, videos, and resources created and searchable on the web in case people want to find out more without putting their emotional luggage on our person.
And, if you’d like more time, find ways to repay us. We too would like to do learning at these conferences, even if it’s from folks who don’t want to have the equity conversation right then and there.
#5 — Being “articulate” might not sound like an insult to *you*, but context and intonation are everything.
I thought we had this conversation back in 2003, but we’ll play it back for everyone. The idea that people can present an idea in a clear and precise manner is not the insult. The insult comes in when we don’t expect one set of people to present their ideas well. This comes up often for black and brown people because articulation in the face of peoples who’ve literally had literacy outlawed for them is that much more plagued with racism. I don’t care if you heard someone call you articulate once so I don’t know why you think that I think it’s a big deal. I’ve been called things worse than “articulate.”
But if you’d like to me to articulate the depths of the insult, I have a few other words I can articulate for you [said with a smile].
#6 — Actually, please do ask whether I’d like to hear more about your racial awakening while I’m trying to have this croissant. It’s an insult to my breakfast otherwise.
Because people of color are often tasked with handling the “difficult” conversations, that’s an emotional labor on top of the endurance necessary to teach in schools that have deplorable working conditions. When we go to conferences with nice pastries and unending supplies of coffee and cream (which is like ad hoc Christmas when this happens), we’d like to partake in the occasional soft bread, please. We don’t get to take a break from our otherness in your eyes, so we should at least be afforded the opportunity to not listen to another story of how you came to your senses about our humanity. If it’s part of the conversation we’re having where you asked how we were doing, great and carry on.
But if you only sat next to me to tell me this story and left … do we look like restrooms to you?
#7 — The equity conversation is neither a resume booster or a conversation separate from other areas of education.
Now that equity has become a theme du’jour, and even educators with no business having this conversation want to have an epiphany about it, it’s important to note that this conversation happened because a lot of folks kept bringing it up when it wasn’t so mainstream. Some of us have had any number of personal and professional setbacks for speaking our minds and hearts about the dehumanizing effects of racism in our schools and districts. Having an expertise in this “difficult” conversation often meant setting us aside so everyone else could talk about ed-tech, math, English, or any other subject that people think they can isolate from identity conversations.
It’s not enough for us to have a separate equity conversation. It’s also not fair for the people of color in your space who know how to do it better be the only folks to have it. Affinity spaces are crucial to parsing these nuances out, but communities can’t constantly run away from the conversation out of fear and guilt.
We can do better.
We as adults need to be mindful of each other as learners, too. The dynamic in some of these conferences still posits its educators of color as objects from which to sap energy from. This list isn’t a whole new set of restrictions around race and identity; it’s a new way of understanding how we approach one another. Instead of seeking to other, we can ask better questions of each other and ourselves. Instead of constantly asking if we’re right so you can be absolved from being called a racist, you can just do the work. Instead of hating that you have to deal with our ways of being, you can have a better perspective of the time and space around you.
Instead of spending time attacking people of color for having high expectations of the environments and participants around us, you can turn our energies toward the people who seek to return this country to pre-Reconstruction times.
These conditions aren’t threats, but, if these recommendations aren’t met, don’t be surprised that more of us won’t go the next time. Whatever that destination is.