Twenty-five years ago, I made a conscious choice to avoid the issue of race. And because I am a white woman, living in a majority white community, I had the privilege of making such a choice.
I had just earned my master’s degree in counseling, and had done my student counseling in two Boston area schools with populations that included brown, black, and white students. In that setting, I could clearly see the need to better understand race, diversity, and multiculturalism. But I was heading to work at an island school in Maine—Vinalhaven—and my students and colleagues there were almost all white. I told myself I didn’t need to study race issues in education or emphasize it in my school counseling practice—and I thought my students didn’t need to learn about or understand race either.
I now understand that the system in which such a relationship could exist is horrible.
Yes, I’d participate in volunteer efforts in January around Martin Luther King Jr. Day and do read-alouds of books by black authors in February as part of Black History Month, but that was about it.
As the school counselor, my main goal was to help students understand and value their identities, interests, and talents, and then assist them in developing and pursuing aligned post-secondary goals, whether it was going to college, lobstering, or something else. I thought a lot about equity and access to opportunity. For example, I would plan college trips around the students whose families did not have the capacity to travel.
If I had wanted it to be “equal,” I would have simply taken all students on the same college trips. But I wanted equity, and I knew that while a few kids were traveling around visiting schools with their parents, other students were not leaving the island. So I prioritized the students who needed my help the most.
I understood and tried to act on the individual and systemic barriers to positive post-secondary outcomes that were impacting my students—barriers such as poverty, lack of access to mental health and substance use disorder services, as well as gendered and restrictive cultural norms. I was doing good work and making a difference. But I was not addressing race, and that was a problem.
The U.S. is projected to become majority-minority by the middle of this century, and it is so full of racial tensions that even young children in our small island and coastal communities are aware of them. How can we continue to tell our students that the color of someone’s skin doesn’t matter, or that we should all just be nice, and try to get along, and treat everyone the same? I want our students to be able to effectively discuss and take action against all the -isms including racism. How will our students develop these skills if the adults in their lives don’t know how to talk to them about oppression in all its forms?
There are many frameworks for understanding systemic racism and other systems of inequity, and one that I have found to be especially helpful is called “The 4 I’s of Oppression”: ideological, institutional, interpersonal, and internal. I learned about this only a year ago at a conference. The workshop facilitator was reminding us of the concept, and I was getting a pit in my stomach. This was new to me. The pit in my stomach turned into full-on nausea when she announced that the next day we would be working on our personal race stories. I panicked. I was overwhelmed by my new knowledge and reluctant to tell my race story, but I am going to tell you the short version of it here.
MY RACE STORY
I grew up in the South, very privileged, and I had two wonderful mother figures in my life. One was my white biological mom, and one was my black mom, Mary Jackson, who helped raise me and my siblings.
In that conference, I didn’t know how to talk about the lifelong connection of love I shared with Mary Jackson, and I especially didn’t know how to explain it to the brown and black educators in the room, who had a much deeper understanding of both their race and mine. At the same time, I could not deny my relationship with Mary Jackson, who was one of the most important and influential people in my life.
That day was a turning point for me, as I began to see how wrong it was to not find the courage to talk about race. It now gives me a pit in my stomach to think that I briefly considered denying the importance of, or even the existence of, Mary Jackson in my life.
The experience had broken my belief that I don’t have to worry about race and set me on a learning journey. The mental gymnastics I had been doing to justify turning my back on addressing racism had become too uncomfortable, and I had to move. Now, I am on this seemingly harder path, but I am energized by the learning and by taking action.
The love and commitment that Mary Jackson and I shared was real, and in so many ways it was good for both of us, both interpersonally and internally. And at the same time, I now understand that the system in which such a relationship could exist is horrible. It is part of the social and economic aftermath of the ideology and institution of slavery, and that truth is something I can no longer hide from.
…to think that I briefly considered denying the importance of, or even the existence of, Mary Jackson in my life.
In planning the 2020 Island Teachers Conference we chose the phrase “striving for equity” to affirm the fact that while we all want equity, it is a monumental goal and we must never stop striving for it.
The second part of our theme, “rural educators as courageous leaders,” emphasizes the profound importance of the role of our teachers. Rural educators and schools were already providing critical leadership in their small communities, and as the coronavirus hit in the spring—followed by heightened social unrest in the summer—their role became even more vital.
Our teachers expressed their desire to learn more about equity issues and their need for help in addressing these issues at school and in the community.
Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, we also saw grassroots efforts pop up on islands and in coastal communities last summer, often led by young people.
And over the past few months, the Island Institute’s newspaper, The Working Waterfront, ran articles and opinion pieces addressing race.
All of this prompted us to design our conference to help build on this courage—the courage of our rural educators, our youth, and all local leaders.
Brown, black, indigenous, Asian, Latinx—all people of color—do not have a choice about whether they want to think or talk about race. And white people no longer have that choice either. It is hard, because many white people, including me, have not had nearly enough experience talking about race, and we need to practice together so that we can get better at it.
It is essential that young people in our communities understand systemic racism and oppression and appreciate, celebrate, and embrace the diversity that exists on our islands, in our country, and in our world. For many of our students, school may be the best—and maybe the only—place for this learning to occur.
As rural educators, we have a moral imperative to do this work to ensure a safer, more loving, and more sustainable future for our students. That way, someday, we may all live in anti-racist communities and in a fair and just society.
Yvonne Thomas is an education specialist at the Island Institute and works closely with island and coastal schools and education organizations. This story was originally presented during the opening remarks for the 2020 Island Teachers Conference on Oct. 8, 2020.