A Pedagogy of Refusal: Re-Essentializing the Word “No” in the Trump Era
- This piece was submitted by a first year HS ELA teacher who felt it would not be safe to publish under her own name.
“I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” -Angela Davis
The day after Trump was elected president, I trudged into the very conservative, very poor, very pro-Trump high school where I am a teacher, wanting nothing more than to crawl back into bed as my students’ cheers and laughter echoed down the hallway. There was (and still is) an air of celebration at the school, at the election of a racist, sexist, bigoted billionaire who wants to ban people from the country on the basis of religion and who was caught on tape admitting to sexual assault and rape. I was (and am) in shock, and in mourning. I thought I would wake up on November 9th to the United States’ election of the first female president. I thought America’s fear of Trump was greater than its misogyny.
At the high school where I work, I wear my liberal agenda on my sleeve and build it actively into my lesson plans, so my principal wasn’t surprised the Wednesday after the election to see me looking miserable. As I walked by him on the way to my class, he jokingly asked me if I was attending the protests that were beginning to clog the streets of Charlotte and Greenville.
“No,” I replied, carefully. “If it were my candidate who had won, I wouldn’t want anyone protesting her.”
I’ve never regretted words the way I have regretted those.
I probably couldn’t have responded any differently; as a first year teacher with a one-sided contract and minimal certification, my job depends on me not rocking the boat, especially since public schools operate under the guise of “nonpolitical.” And considering my quickly-formed reputation with students and administration as the radical feminist from a liberal college (they always forget the “arts” part in “liberal arts”) it probably was in my best interests to curry favor with my principal. But I can’t deny that by not demonstrating against Trump, or at least supporting those who do, I chose to stand on the side of Trump. My refusal to resist him constitutes passive acceptance.
A few weeks later, at NCTE’s Annual Convention in Atlanta, I listened to sj Miller as he presented on the difficulties of providing for students specifically within prisons, and how his literacy program for students in the juvenile justice system was killed before it began because he wanted to do radical things like provide students with pens and allow them to skype with the authors of books (neither writing utensils nor video cameras are allowed within the prison walls). Miller advocated for a “pedagogy of refusal” in times where we run into challenges brought on by bureaucracy, stating that acceptance in the face of injustice is to be implicit in that injustice. We must instead, he said, distance ourselves from our propensity to say “yes” and re-essentialize refusal into our social systems to affect change.
Miller’s words stayed with me long after the conference. When I had said “yes,” even passively, to Trump’s presidency that day with my principal, I had denied the humanity of all of the people whose marginalization Trump will perpetuate. I am complicit in their oppression.
We live in a society where saying “yes” is more important than saying “let’s think this through.” A society where “I agree” is more acceptable than “I challenge you to think differently.” Our operation under a pedagogy of acceptance has brought us to where we are today; our constant “yes”ing has left us with a president who has never been told “no.”
It is my job, as an educated, socially-aware human, to take a stand against injustice, even when it comes in the form of a president-elect. When a person denies another’s humanity on the basis of race, class, religion, gender, or any other axis of identity, my responsibility is to reject that assumption and challenge the person who made it to think differently. So why did I choose not to do so when the bigoted person in question is also about to become the most powerful person in the world? Why did I shirk my moral responsibilities at a time when they were more prevalent, more crucial than they had ever been in my lifetime?
When my principal asked me, implicitly, if I was going to be complicit in the bigotry that is already beginning to envelope the nation, my answer should have been, “no.” But America’s idealism has handicapped me; I would rather fall back on some misguided conception of the necessity for acceptance than do the uncomfortable work of disagreeing with the status-quo.
We must bring refusal back into the American dialogue.
If we are to weather the storm of Trump, we must recognize that every time we say “yes” to what is conventional, we say “no” to acknowledging the marginalization of deliberately silenced cultures. If we continue to accept what we believe to be inevitable, we push non-privileged communities even further into the periphery. We must bring refusal back into the American dialogue. We must make statements like “I cannot accept that” as powerful as “I agree with you.” We must re-essentialize the word “no” into the American vocabulary and psyche, and say it fiercely to all of the forces who have brought about the election of Trump.