New Insights Help a Teacher Cultivate Empowerment and Oneness in a Majority Minority Classroom

Racism in America: The Most Challenging Issue February 2018
Faculty: Gwen Etter-Lewis, Niki Daniels,
Guy Emerson Mount, Robert Stockman

Luke Bolton, a learner in the course on Racism in America: The Most Challenging Issue, first offered in February 2018, is a school teacher. He has taught in schools in the Bronx and Harlem in New York City where the majority of the students are minorities. For a year he is teaching in the International School of Zanzibar, Tanzania, while his wife does research for her PhD. You can read more about Luke at the end of his essay on what he learned in the racism course.—THE EDITORS

Luke Introduces Himself. My name is Luke Bolton, and I am currently teaching history and geography at the International School of Zanzibar in Tanzania (while my wife pursues a PhD). I grew up in a small town in Colorado that was (and remains) racially segregated. Although there was a growing Latino community in the town, I had little opportunity for meaningful interactions with students or families of other racial or ethnic backgrounds. Although the college I went to was more diverse, this trend of living in a bit of a bubble continued until I was able to live abroad in Morocco, Jordan, and later Cairo.

After college I moved to New York City where I had my first real opportunity to live in a diverse neighborhood in Brooklyn. I have since gotten a teaching degree and spent five years teaching in both the Bronx and Harlem in majority minority schools. I am always thinking about my role as an educator in helping students develop the analytical and reflective tools to see, respond to, and address the many inequalities in the communities where we live.

In the last few years I have started to read more seriously books on racism in America and am very interested in developing my own perspective and beliefs on this issue so that I can become a better and more just educator, advocate, and friend to my students. As a white educator in a minority school, I also want to be more conscious of the dynamic that exists between my students and myself so that I can work to avoid the “white savior” mentality cultivated by many movies on education and instead work to create an atmosphere that contributes to empowerment and the realization of the oneness of humanity among my colleagues and students. After my wife’s and my year in Zanzibar, I hope to return to New York City and continue teaching in the public school system in Harlem.

My New Understandings and Insights. Although many of the broad topics in Racism in America: The Most Challenging Issue were not new to me, the depth with which we studied them helped to really deepen my understanding of the different issues. One of the main areas where I learned the most was in regard to the stories and contributions of women to the topic. After reading the articles and reflecting on my own learning, I certainly found it to be true that women were largely left out of the teaching of this issue, despite their unique experience and significant contributions. This is especially important looking at the ways in which black women are specifically affected by modern issues such as mass incarceration, another area where I had little knowledge.

On an analytical level, the early articles about the United States as a racial dictatorship and racial hegemony were particularly powerful and gave me a framework to help understand and organize the role of the government in contributing to this persistent problem. Being able to so boldly name these phases of white domination and control was important and felt like pulling away the veneer of “democracy” and “freedom” that is often used to gloss over the country’s terrible history.

My New Skill. Although I still have a way to go on this, one skill that I have improved is in paying more attention to the importance of word choice when thinking and writing about race. Talking about race is often complicated and fraught with pitfalls with the words we use having the power to clarify, obfuscate, or cause great harm. I often found myself rewriting sentences or looking up exactly the right word to address the issue.

The importance of this was certainly made clear in the article about grammar in text books and how it can be used to perpetuate or hide injustices of the past. I have even started to notice this in other areas, such as reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where word choice is an incredibly important factor in accurately describing different events, their causes and results.

A New Feeling. One surprising response for me was reading the strong frustration with the more difficult academic articles that were presented earlier in the course. Although I certainly struggled to make sense of them myself, I was not expecting how a number of people were turned off by the way that the articles were written.

This is certainly an important point to take into account. Unfortunately, just because someone is a deep thinker does not make them a good writer, and it often seems that academic articles can be needlessly complex and dense in their style. However, we also read academic articles written in much more readable and relatable prose. Thus it is possible for academics to write about a complex topic in a way that is more approachable for a wider audience. This distinction is useful to keep in mind when talking about or sharing resources on race as I want to make sure that the message is not obscured by the messenger.

Changes in My Beliefs. It seems as though my perspective was more deepened and broadened than shifted. I have a deeper understanding of the different topics that we studied with the stories, data, and information to further describe and clarify issues I already had some understanding of. My perspective is a bit more inclusive (I hope!) as I am now more aware of the ways that different groups are left out of the main narrative or the ways that certain events, such as the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, have been defined in a way that intentionally limits their scope and power. This helps me when approaching these issues in the future, looking for who or what is left out or reframed.

How I Will Use What I Learned. As a teacher, I will apply what I learned in both direct and indirect ways. At times I have the opportunity to teach about issues of slavery or oppression, and I can use what I have learned both to change the content of what I teach as well as the way I frame issues and the individuals and organizations included within it. I had a chance to do this already when teaching about the transatlantic slave trade, and I look forward to doing it more in the next year when working with teachers who are teaching U.S. history to their students.

As a Bahá’í, this course will help me in my engagement with the community-building processes where I live, work, and serve in Harlem in New York. I hope this will help me be more understanding in my approach, more tactful with the way that I interact with people, and more patient with the relationships I have. I also hope that this will serve to be the foundation of further study and deepening on this issue and the way that I can contribute.

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A second iteration of the Wilmette Institute course Racism in America: The Most Challenging Issue started on June 7. The course has proved to be quite popular. Watch for information when it will next be offered.

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