As the rain falls on my hooded raincoat, I watch my dog ahead of me on the leash while we walk in loops around my neighborhood. The puddles form on the side of the road and gradually flow into the storm drains. Cars pass me. People scurry by. In my house, behind me, my kids are doing homework, eating snacks, and probably leaving their plates scattered around—maybe they’re arguing. My neighborhood in North Seattle continues its often monotonous, usually quiet and ordinary way of being. Yet, my mind is full.
I’m listening to another episode from the podcast Teaching While White. And, like many times over the past year, I’m experiencing a full range of feelings (including great responsibility) while my logical teacher-brain tries to think through questions of practicality, research, and resources. This experience, I think, is similar to those that many of our faculty, administration, and staff are having in their own ways. Indeed, educators, therapists, doctors, lawyers, lawmakers, and people from all walks of life are waking up to the reality of the current social situation in the United States, in which racial inequities and racism are affecting all areas of our society, from education to housing to health care to the criminal justice system.
On the Tuesday following Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Seattle Waldorf School faculty, administration, staff, and Board members gathered together for a day-long workshop led by Racial Equity Consultants team members Tanisha Brandon-Felder and Fran Partridge to focus on issues of racism and inequity. Part of this workshop that was particularly impactful was a gallery-style walk through the history of oppression in and by the United States, looking at injustice after injustice carried out by the government and the majority of white people. The collection of images and stories portrayed 400 years of disturbing and tragic history, during which the wealth of our nation was built on the institution of enslaving human beings. Even after the end of slavery, segregation, white domination, and oppression of people of color have continued to exist in our country.
I find it easy to feel incredibly discouraged, frustrated, and angry at being misled by history classes and textbooks during my early education. As a white person, it’s easy to feel embarrassed and confused. However, at the same time, I also feel a great sense of responsibility, of working hard to see through the veneer of whiteness, to question my own assumptions, or what I’ve been taught, or what the dominant culture “says.” One of the equity consultants helped shift my perspective from anger, shame, and dismay when she voiced this thought: “It’s not (most) white people’s fault who are alive today. It’s a system we inherited. And it’s our job to work to change it.” One of our faculty members shared the thought that it’s certainly our responsibility as teachers to bring this awareness to children in our classrooms—that the very fact that they were born during this time, in the Pacific Northwest, on stolen land, with this inherited system of racial injustice—is a sign that their generation is somehow spiritually entrusted to take up this work with each other. And it’s our responsibility to help them.
The work of changing the trajectory set by history is certainly not easy. It is difficult and uncomfortable to navigate through loss, rage, and shame, and to be vulnerable. The legacy of injustice won’t be solved in one year or two years or even 10 years. But as Angela Davis, an African American professor at UC Santa Cruz, said during a recent MLK Day speech, “What we need to do now is generate hope.” And working to see the truth, and to generate this hope is something I work to do every day in my classroom and life.
Ashley Umlauf, Grade 2 Class Teacher