NCTE: Diversifying Who I Hear & Read
As a white male educator, I never thought about my presence in a session until NCTE 2019.
Often, I attend conference sessions in the same way that I select books: “Oo, that title or summary sounds interesting.”
Yet, from memory, some of the educators I have chosen to hear speak at previous conferences (Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Katherine Bomer, Randy Bomer, Ralph Fletcher, Georgia Heard, Paul Janeczko, Michael W. Smith, Jeffrey Wilhelm, Chris Lehman, Jeff Anderson, Cindi Minnich, Tom Newkirk, Mark Overmeyer, Stacy Shubitz….) demonstrate an undeniable truth:
I listen to and read a lot of, what white people have to say.
So, this year, at NCTE 2019, I chose sessions led by educators who are Black, Indigenous, & People of Color (BIPOC). I have been thinking about how, a few years back, I found Ann Morgan’s A Year of Reading the World and began some serious self-reflection regarding the books I read. Like Morgan, the reading experience I learned and adopted for most of my life has been Anglocentric.
My conference choices, historically, have been Anglocentric as well.
From adolescence into adulthood, I only casually consider the author when selecting a book. I rarely looked at the author’s bio or the picture on the book jacket as a determining factor in choosing to read a book. It was a privileged aspect of my education to rarely consider culture when making decisions on what to read, what to write, what course to take…or if I should speak up in a class or conference session.
Like the work I am doing with my reading life, I want to continue to push myself to also diversify the list of educators I listen to at conferences.
Because My Whiteness Is Bold and Presuming
Whereas my buying and reading a book helps support that author, that author does not feel my presence in the same way that a BIPOC educator might feel my white male presence in a conference session–especially one where BIPOC educators lead the discussion.
My presence might cause attendees to measure their words or perhaps not speak at all. That possibility is simultaneously humbling and nauseating. If true, I am anxious to do the work I need to do to not create that stress in others.
While I want to learn and I want to personally change, my wanting to contribute to universal changes in equity, social justice, and anti-racist structures and policies in education might also mean not thrusting my whiteness into conference sessions.
For example, during the Anti Racist Learning Spaces session, co-led by Britt Hawthorne, Tiffany Jewell, Julia Torres, Patrick Harris, and Lorena German, Harris said he was speaking to people already doing the work.
I asked myself: Is educating myself doing the work? Do I belong here today? Is my being here…inappropriate? Those feelings are on me. That is my whiteness, my fragility, rising to the surface.
I didn’t leave. I stood in the hall behind several rows of other observers and listened. Being on the outside looking in was not lost on me metaphorically. I saw people of color nodding in sync with the presenters’ words, waving hands in appreciation, snapping fingers in thanks, smiling in unity and…I felt like even though the information is relevant to the changes I want to participate in, maybe I shouldn’t have been there.
I saw and heard pride and love in that room. Love and pride that I know my whiteness might undercut. I would hate for that to continue to be true and I will remain remorseful because I know that is true.
A Proposal to White Educators
Social change isn’t an avalanche. Social change comes through persistence and sacrifice. It is incremental. Some of the small steps are happening, but more can come.
One step for white educators to adopt would be to encourage opportunities for BIPOC-only spaces and sessions at conferences. We can be supportive and change agents without inserting our whiteness into every session or conversation. Whiteness does not need to be present in every session.
I encourage professional conferences to create secure, safe spaces (sessions or otherwise) for BIPOC educators to present and share together without the intrusion of whiteness. I think that is healthy, I think that might help in the sustainability of what is hard, long-term investment in change.