Written by: Hans Appel
I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality...I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.
-Martin Luther King Jr
Have you ever been confronted with your own inadequacy in such a delayed yet profound way that shakes you to your core? It's been months since George Floyd’s viral death sparked a public outcry of anti-racism; however, only recently have I been able to write about the undeniable mirror these ongoing injustices have provided for myself.
I’ve been proudly advocating for anti-racism for as long as I could remember...or...so I thought.
An illuminated path of self proclamation begins by taking inventory of who I am and where I'm from. I’m a middle aged white male, born on the east coast but mostly raised on the west coast. Dad’s family grew up in the Midwest and Mom’s family grew up in the deep south.
Visiting extended relatives in the southern most state as a young boy, meant confronting overt racism like my grandparents using the n-word on store employees, driving by angry men dressed in white capes in the backwoods, and making sense out of history textbooks filled with untruths. As a young person growing up in the pacific northwest, I hid this side of my family out of embarrassment, shame, and guilt. While the frequency of family visits lessened over my teenage years, these experiences cast a dark shadow of insecurity that I still wrestle with today.
Trips to visit my mid-west family provided completely different opportunities to learn about covert ways of discriminating. The language and behavior chosen to hurt black and brown people was dramatically different; yet, equally likely to “spirit murder” African Americans.
Racism is a societal time bomb that destroys culture--the only difference between covert and overt racism is the packaging of the bomb--but either way it’s wide spread damage is inevitable.
The northwest is certainly not immune to such systemic racism; but, to be honest, I feel like I’ve fought against oppression of others my entire life. Jennifer and I started the first Equality Club for LGBTQ students in our area (only the 2nd middle school in our predominantly liberal state). I’ve focused my career championing for minorities, ACES, marginalized, and impacted. I openly speak out against racism around me and practice constant almost obsessively unhealthy amounts of self reflection of my daily actions. I’m an ally--one of the good guys and spent my entire life desperately trying to intentionally behave, think, and feel differently than the racist role models I grew up observing.
Despite a healthy and active pursuit towards spotting blindspots...I’m NOT...yet...only BECOMING.
Here’s a story about a little black girl from our school--we’ll call her Aliyah. Aliyah came to us in 6th grade with a track record of office visits, discipline, and attendance concerns. She struggled with work completion and a history of “bullying and harassment.” Her social struggles resulted in no friends and no leeway. Her mom was labeled as a difficult parent--one who would gladly “flaunt the race card” in an effort to support her daughter’s avoidance of receiving ‘standard discipline and consequences.’ Mom and Aliyah were branded “angry black women.”
If you’re an educator, you’ve been warned about a student and/or parent with such visceral intensity that I’ll bet you’ve slightly adjusted your own approach either positively or negatively. I’d like to think that I always reach out early to new students but I intentionally sought out Aliyah on the first day of school.
Calling her into my office, I could feel and even smell the anxiety, fear, and anger upon requesting her presence in my office. It was obvious that office visits in the past resulted in negative feelings, discipline, and shame. Walking in with shoulders tensed and fists clenched she was preparing herself to do battle with another racist white guy.
As a standard get to know you check-in, I lightly peppered her with intrusive questions while interjecting lighthearted anecdotes about myself. The goal always being to create a warm comfortable space that a student might choose to return. I typically end this brief encounter with a little reminder what a counselor is and isn’t, limits of confidentiality, and how middle school students might best utilize their counselor. These conversations end with me sharing how to go about signing up to see me in the future…
“I’m never gonna come see YOU,” she challenged sarcastically.
At the time, I remember feeling a little bruised ego by the easy dismissal of my potential services but fully accepted that this relationship would take time. Trust is not built overnight.
After a long pause, I then launched into asking a follow up question I’d never asked before:
“Going through your file, I noticed that you had Mrs. Snell for 2nd grade, Mrs. Roberts for 3rd grade, Mrs. Martin for 4th grade, and Mr. Shelby for 5th grade. On top of that, your counselor throughout elementary school was Mrs. Stanley,” as I began to hesitate.
“YEAH”, she responded with a puzzled query?
“And the principals you had in elementary, Mr. Fiddell and Mrs. Sparks,” I paused taking a long deep breath unsure if I was willing to utter my actual question out loud.
“Yeah, so...what’s your point,” she reiterated with a slight uptick in irritation?
“Well...they’re all white”, I stopped briefly. “And now once again you find yourself sitting in a strange white guy’s office asking you annoying questions trying to get to know you as a person.” I froze for a moment. “What’s it like being surrounded by only white educators all the time,” as I averted my gaze trying to make myself and Aliyah more comfortable with my uncomfortable question?
“What do you mean?” She said, sitting forward making increasingly stronger eye contact with me.
“I’m just curious about what that’s like for you. I’m guessing you’ve experienced racism in real ways that I as a white guy might not really understand,” I said with a hint of vulnerability.
Aliyah’s shoulders immediately relaxed and she moved back in her chair saying, “it’s been really hard.”
"Tell me about it, I’d love to learn about your experience in and out of school," I shared.
The next 20 minutes of open and raw relationship building dialogue foreshadowed a remarkable and life-changing positive evolution.
The next 3 middle school years were followed with unprecedented success. Aliyah made the honor roll, successfully participated in activities, and developed life-long friendships. Her behavior and attendance were exemplary and she connected with countless educators at our school. She proved to be a gifted college bound student and athlete throughout high school and continues to reach wild success in all aspects of her life. I have a wonderful relationship with this former student and relish the chance to hear her first hand account of present day successes.
Careful readers might feel upset that I’m oversimplifying the slow transformation that happened with Aliyah. It’s not as if my genuine warmth and curiosity were the resounding systemic change she deserved. Her experience was far from perfect in life or at our school, as we know racism is a mega problem and finding micro changes to build trust doesn't dismiss the real societal work that needs to continue throughout education and beyond.
Sexual harassment, bullying, oppression, and injustice are probably microcosm of the bigger workplace and societal inequities that are fostered in unsafe cultures and climates. Schools have an obligation to drive societal conversation as the leaders in safe and welcoming organizations.
I’ve held tightly onto Aliyah’s story; although, many incredible details I’m intentionally leaving out. Her story served as a guide for me to find the courage to talk with students about race. Through the years, I’ve become much more culturally responsive as I strive to view all people through an equitable lens to better understand their unique world. But here’s the long winded uncomfortable insight from this blog...
For a long time, the story I told myself was that we helped transform Aliyah into an amazing kid. That our award winning culture provided the opportunity to BECOME...
Until George Floyd, I’d felt a sense of pride reflecting on Aliyah’s blossoming INTO…
Here's the cold hard truth. Aliyah always WAS…
The white lensed obtuse arrogance to think that I created an anti-racist space for learning only highlights my ignorance on race.
Award Winning Culture can't abolish racism or injustice. Instead it’s filled with educators intentionally willing to challenge and push against all forms of discrimination.
It’s not about creating perfect conditions for every learner. It’s about striving for relentless improvement to reach those conditions!
In reality, she’s ALWAYS BEEN an incredible student capable of achieving monumental success. I didn’t fix her behavior or attendance. I didn’t inspire purposeful learning. I didn’t resurrect a highly at-risk student.
To make Aliyah’s success, the standard, rather than the exception--white educators must start BECOMING...
Looking back with clearer perspectacles, I’m aware that I changed far more than Aliyah. She was always award winning. I simply helped a student remove a protective mask to avoid being hurt by continuing my journey to BECOMING…
Floyd’s murder reinforced to me that I’m…
BECOMING DRIVEN FOR CHANGE
BECOMING INTOLERANT TO INJUSTICE
WHAT ARE YOU BECOMING?
About the Author
Hans Appel is an educator, speaker, and writer deeply committed to inspiring the whole child. He’s the author of, Award Winning Culture: Building School-Wide Intentionality and Action Through Character, Excellence, and Community. Additionally, he’s the Director of Culture for the Teach Better Team, Co-host of the Award Winning Culture podcast, and the Co-Creator of Award Winning Culture.
Award Winning Culture was created by Hans and Jennifer Appel with the sole purpose of creating an educational mindset of Positive INTENTIONALITY and ACTION; with a daily mantra to make our sphere of influence stronger through Character, Excellence, and Community. Part of AWC's mission is to highlight outstanding educators, companies, and resources that support an Award Winning Culture. Both Jennifer and Hans work at Enterprise Middle School aka Wildcat Nation. Wildcat Nation received the 2018 ASCD Whole Child Award in Washington, for its award winning culture and the 2018 Global "Class Act Award" for Kindness.