It’s hard to believe, but we’re approaching the three-year anniversary of the COVID-19 shutdown in our schools. We’ve all been through a great deal of disturbance over these past three years. One of my coworkers recently shared this article on the hidden toll of “microstress” and it resonated with me. In my work with community members across the country (teachers, staff, families, school and district leaders), I’m finding that people are tired. I have a 2 year old y’all -- I’m really tired. On any given day, change is hard. Right now, it’s really hard.
But as a white woman, I don’t really know the meaning of tired. I am not worn down by the structural systems that uphold whiteness and daily microaggressions that face Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) colleagues and students. (Here’s an easy one -- how many times in my life have I been introduced as European-American or as a person without color? None).
I was recently introduced to an analogy by Beverly Daniel Tatum in which she describes the difference between being actively and passively anti-racist. She asks you to imagine standing still on a moving walkway in the airport. Even if you turn and face the opposite direction, if you remain still, you will continue along the walkway in the direction you were originally headed.
"Walking in the opposite direction"
Last spring, I had the opportunity to support a long-time district partner as they wanted to begin “walking in the opposite direction” in their district. This district had historically used the imagery of Indigenous people in their mascot and wanted to make a change.
As we gathered students, staff, and community members to discuss potential new mascots and the implications of everything that we needed to change, we knew that we had to not only plan for change regarding the surface layers of change -- the uniforms, the image painted on the football fields, the cheers and chants -- but also more importantly for the deeper layers of change. Simply changing the logo without addressing the underlying layers that had led us to this mascot in the first place, would be like turning and facing backward on the moving walkway. Without taking a step, we’d still end up at the destination we did not intend.
Awareness, Engagement, and Knowledge-Sharing
We needed to engage in conversations about implicit bias, power, privilege, and structural racism. We had to be ready to reckon with the local and historical contexts that created the conditions in which this mascot was developed. We had to think about traditions and the roots of those traditions. We needed to build awareness of why the change was necessary, including sharing various resources such as this American Psychological Association article which could help community members understand why the current mascot could be so harmful to students.
This work is about systems, but ultimately systems are made up of individuals. As an ally, I have to consider the additional layers of stress that change management work can put on individual colleagues and students of color -- in being asked to “teach” others, or relive and share trauma to build others’ awareness, or asked to speak for entire communities.
This work is emotional labor
It is important for me to recognize that this work is emotional labor and has the potential to cause or perpetuate harm. It is important for me to take my own steps on that moving walkway so that I am not relying on BIPOC communities to come up with and enact solutions or teach others.
I invite you to consider: what are the ways in which you could turn around and walk in the opposite direction of the moving walkway in your school or district? Where do you see “microstress” moments, particularly those that are impacting BIPOC individuals? How can you empathize with people who may be affected by structures that don’t affect you? By taking those key steps, you can cultivate learning environments where everyone can feel a sense of belonging allowing them to reach their potential.
Land acknowledgment: I am writing this while on land that originally belonged to the Susquehannock and Piscataway people.