Antiracist Activism for Teachers and Students/Students/Students Taking the Lead

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Multicultural Education enforced by a new curriculum is not the only way anti-racist action can infiltrate a school setting. Students from a variety of different educational backgrounds have been fighting racism by joining together to create awareness and change. We have highlighted student activism starting in high school all the way up to graduate level work. We originally got the idea because it was hard to avoid all the student work being done on the college level. We then thought to branch out and see what other students were doing at other levels of education. The varying levels of education did not affect the intensity in which the students affected change. From high school to graduate school we can see a lot of passion and effectiveness coming from the following highlighted student organizations.

High school was the first age group that we studied. We studied both a group from Amherst Regional High School, called Video Vanguards, as well as a Mount Holyoke student who implemented a program while she was still in high school. Three females and one male were interviewed for Video Vanguards, whose recent group project was a joint video on being multiracial individuals. Each of the students were asked what their definitions of racism were, whether racism itself existed in the world, how it was manifested, and whether or not they considered themselves to be anti-racist. All of the students interviewed were of color, and all of them agreed that racism did indeed exist, and all had examples of how it was manifested in their everyday lives, whether on an individual level or on an institutional level.

The students did differ, however, on whether or not they believed themselves to be anti-racist. From the Video Vanguards group, the three females all considered themselves to be anti-racist. The term “anti-racism” among these three was generally defined as education about racism and engaging in acts to stop racism; they believed they were anti-racists because they were involved in different organizations which worked within the community to educate the public about race and which provided forums in which discussion of race, its history, and its existence took place. They also believed that through Video Vanguards, specifically through making a film about race which has had several public screenings, that they are educating the community on the fact that race does not simply have to be one sided. Their existence as multiracial individuals, their embracing of many cultures and their defiance of society’s race lines has helped them to form their anti-racist identities. The one individual who believed himself to not be an anti-racist defined anti-racism as combating racism actively, such as through protests. He did, however, believe that racism should be eradicated; he simply believed that he did not engage in enough anti-racist acts to be identified as an anti-racist. We believe, however, that one does not have to be an active “protester” to be anti-racist, and wanting to eradicate racism is a clear anti-racist act.

Another individual who was interviewed was a Mount Holyoke student who implemented a “diversity course” at her private high school. Inspired by the people of color conferences she attended, she decided to work with the multi-cultural coordinator at her independent school to create a course and curricula on diversity. The first year the program was held was her senior year—14 people signed up for the course, which she herself co-taught. Different teachers came to talk about the different aspects of diversity, and students were taught to bring what they learned in the classroom out into the real world. This was one of the most astounding examples of student anti-racism that we found, because it was an implementation of an entire course to educate a majority white student body, a course which still continues today.

With this age group, we found that some individuals did not really realize how anti-racist their every day actions could prove to be, while others clearly realized the importance of their role in the community as youth anti-racist activists.

In addition to interviewing high school students, we also interviewed two college students to find out what their views on racism were and whether they viewed themselves as anti-racists. Both students saw racism in everyday life. They acknowledged that racism can take many forms, from individual interactions with people that happen every day, to institutional, systemic, and historical forms of racism and oppression. These students regarded acts of anti-racism as actively combating all forms of racism. For these two students, one could combat racism by educating oneself, educating others, and speaking up about racism and oppression. Anti-racists must have an open mind and take initiative in order to fight racism.

In the fight against racism, these two college students made a documentary about racism at their college campus. As part of their documentary, they interviewed students, professors, alumnae, and administration about their experience of racism on campus. They asked participants whether they thought that the college campus was a diverse environment. Finally, they asked participants to give suggestions of how to improve the campus community with regard to racism. The documentary acted as a form of education; it put the spotlight on the tensions around race that had affected the campus community and allowed white students, professors, and administration an inside look at how students of color felt about the campus community. The documentary provided an opportunity for students of color to speak up and take action against racism on campus. It is because of these two students and their documentary that a space was created for discussions about racism on their college campus and in the greater society.

Tanya Williams represents an anti-racist activist who is currently in her final year as a graduate student. She is working on her doctorate at UMASS-Amherst in the Social Justice Education Program. Her topic focuses on internalized racism for African-Americans. While she is also the Coordinator of Multicultural Affairs at Mount Holyoke College, we interviewed her as being a graduate student anti-racist activist.

Tanya expressed that she was in high school when she formally started her “understanding of racism. I got that racism didn’t work.” However, she knew from an earlier age that she wanted to be anti-racist, but she did not yet have the consciousness, only the feeling that she “knew something wasn’t right.” In high school, Tanya joined a group called STEP, Students To End Prejudice. At Texas A&M University she was involved in an organization called, University Awareness for Cultural Togetherness, where they talked about oppression. She then taught at UMASS-Amherst, using much of the literature that we have read in our own course, including Paula Ferrari, Beverly Tatum, and one of her doctorate committee chairs, Bailey Jackson. Now, working on her doctorate, Tanya is not only finished with her course work and in the process of writing her own theories and literature, but she is also taking in the models provided as examples in her field, and examining them closely in order to offer her own critiques and theories in regards to them. I’m looking at how racism exists as an institutional system, but I’m also looking at the effects on people who have been oppressed by it and how that kind of sets itself up as a system as well. The maintenance of internalized racism by people of color is holding a system in place. Tanya uses her focus on the role of internalized racism in examining Bailey Jackson’s “Black Identity Development Model.”

One of Tanya William’s theories is that Jackson’s first stage, Naïve, looks a lot like his last stage, Internalization. She explains that though they look similar from the outside, they are “not even close to the same thing.” Her main point in this theory is that being in the first stage is like being color-blind, while being in the last stage for her means, “I’m not at all forgetting that I am a black person that lives in a system of racism,” but that “I am choosing to work with white people who are anti-racist in a movement.” She ties this back to her doctorate focus of internalized racism for African-Americans stating that by being in the final stage of internalization, she has “a different awareness about myself” which allows her to function in this racist society and appear as if she is unaware of the oppression, when in actuality, she has been able to view herself without shame and be present in her current situations, regardless of the white or black people in the room. This is an example of taking the knowledge that she has learned, and adding to it through her own thinking and experiences. However, Tanya expressed that there are many ways to be anti-racist, but first we have to understand the system’s relation to the greater role that oppression plays.

Tanya shared that one of her professors’ talks about oppression being the table surface. Institutionalized oppression is one leg, while internalized oppression is the other leg. “Knock one of them out—it’s got to fall.” Tanya notes that the only leg that we as individuals or as a group have control over, is internalized oppression and that if both those legs are what’s holding oppression up, they’re still both smaller systems within a larger system of oppression. She also talked about how “there is no hierarchy of oppression,” and that she believes “that when we understand one of them, we can understand them all, and therefore, if we knock one of them down—domino effect—has to be.” However, Tanya aptly pointed out that it is easy to believe that

Internalized racism mainly speaks to people of color. But the reality is, white people have internalized sub-dominance. So it’s the same thing. While I’m unlearning my stuff around shame and negativity and all I’ve seen and been taught about my group and myself, white people then get to question themselves, “Am I as good as I thought I was?” or “Am I as powerful?” It’s unlearning the racism that they’ve learned, but it’s also unlearning the dominance that they’ve learned, so I think that’s where allies come in. Going through my own process of unlearning internalized racism and working on that, it is not an easy process. However, she also points out that she believes racism can be countered in many ways.

The easiest way to have an impact on racism is to interrupt a racist thought that you may have, or interrupting a friend saying something or doing something. Tanya expressed, “I think we don’t understand the amount of influence we have by just speaking and interrupting.” She also stated that getting the information for oneself was also an interruption of racism, but the place to start is “needing to change.” This was clearly put when Tanya pointed out that, “to be anti anything is to say, ‘I don’t stand for this—at anytime.’”

When asked whether she considered herself to be an anti-racist, Tanya replied with great enthusiasm, “Yep—sure do!” She continued to explain though that I used to believe that that means only white people could be anti-racist. Because I understand the system of racism being held up by these two table legs, I now understand that I have to be just as anti-racist in saying that racism does not work. Any form of it—including internalized racism, including overt/covert—it does not work. That to me is what makes me anti-racist, and more so, my actions, and thought process, and beliefs, makes me anti-racist.

Tanya later recognized though that “racism is playing out, racism has to play out because of the power dynamic in our society.” She then took it a step further by saying, “Racism is in the room; internalized racism is in the room.” This made me a little uncomfortable, and, to be honest, a little defeated, so I asked, If you’re trying to knock down the pegs one way or the other… I mean, does it mean that it always has to be that way? No, most definitely not. We haven’t gotten to that point yet though. But on an individual level, does it have to, you know, one on one? That’s the thing that I’m talking about when I think about internalized racism, because I don’t think that we’ve done our work at all around internalized racism or internal silence, and so, we think that it’s not working out. Internalized racism isn’t working out on my behalf sitting here—I don’t know what you’re carrying. Racism is always playing out until we really start talking about the stuff that’s going on internally.

To tie this poignant point back to her own work as an anti-racist activist, not only is Tanya learning about the material, but adding to that knowledge through her own work—as an educator. One of the last thoughts that she expressed in the interview, since we made the connection earlier that all of the different isms are related, was that I know that oppression doesn’t work so I believe that I am anti-oppression, anti-oppressive. My dream is for Mount Holyoke to start seeing themselves as anti-oppressive and people enter when they can. ‘Ok, I can be anti-racist because I understand racism,’ ‘Oh, I can be anti-heterosexism because understand heterosexism,’ but to start to see anti-oppression. Oppression doesn’t work. That’s all that we’re saying when we talk about anti-anything.

She concluded the interview by saying, “to say that I’m anti-racist is not limiting, but it’s a small part. There’s way more to it. …I’m pro human being!”

All of the students that we interviewed, regardless of their age, maintained the same idea of anti-racism and how one can become an anti-racist. It all starts by educating oneself and then going out into the greater community to educate others. As these students have shown, this education can take many forms and be effective in different ways.