Every time I put pen to paper to write a blog involving race, I’m keenly aware of the impacts of the decision to do so.
I know that many will find encouragement. They’ll appreciate that a community leader, particularly one with so much unearned privilege (a relatively affluent, middle-aged, straight, cisgendered white man) would use his privilege to speak out.
I know that a few, even in progressive communities such as the one in which I reside and lead, will roll their eyes at yet another “liberal” white person trying to relieve themselves of the white guilt the liberal media has indoctrinated them to feel espousing plans to teach children lessons that only parents should have the right to teach.
And I also know that the vast majority of folks will ignore the message--not out of any spite, but simply as a result of being overwhelmed by life, wanting to focus on other immediate priorities or take a respite from the near daily onslaught of negative news and the deafening editorialization of talking heads (such as myself).
I get it. And yet, thinking (and sharing my thinking) about race and its intersectionality with education is not optional. Even if only a small handful of people read my words, I have to write them. I have to put something productive and hopeful out in the universe. I know that I’m not alone in feeling the need to counteract the disinformation, fear, and hate in the world. I am one small voice, but I have to use it.
There’s more than just silence that is not an option in the wake of the hate-filled, targeted killing of 10 innocent people and injuring of three more at a grocery store in a predominantly black neighborhood of Buffalo, NY. As a parent, as an educator, most importantly just as a human being, I feel there is more that I cannot accept; I invite you to consider the following non-options with me.
It’s not an option to ignore what is happening.
I am exhausted, too. I’m exhausted by all the negative news. I struggle to not get desensitized to all the violence and hate. Did you know that last week’s shootings at a SoCal church that served a majority Taiwanese congregation that killed one and injured five appears to have been conducted by a Chinese man who had a history of hatred toward the Taiwanese? Or the shooting in the area of Dallas known as Koreatown that occurred just three days prior to the Buffalo tragedy was conducted by a man who had “delusional fears” of Asians? Three apparent hate-based shootings in one week.
This is our reality. To turn a blind eye to these events, to allow ourselves to become numb, only increases the chances that this kind of hate-motivated violence will continue. Maybe like me you know that you can’t ignore this, but you struggle with what to do about it and you’re unsure that your psyche can handle too much more. That’s real, too. It’s all real. I can’t speak for others, but for me, I am grateful to have a great counselor who I meet with much more regularly the last two years than I ever have in my life. I know when I’m dysregulated, I need to take care of myself. I know when I can achieve emotional regulation, some ways I need to spend my time are talking with my family (including my kids) and friends to process in community what is happening and hold space for grief, anger, prayer, and discussion of what actions we can take as individuals to counteract hate in our own spaces.
It’s not an option to accept misinformation as truth.
Hate is born out of misinformation. Misinformation spreads like a virus amongst fear and a dearth of accurate information. We must not accept misinformation and the propagators who deal in it. Full stop. In my estimation, it’s probably human nature to want your news to reinforce beliefs you already hold and/or to have some element of entertainment value; however, I question whether that serves any of us well at all. It certainly isn’t a value that schools should be teaching. Schools have an essential responsibility to teach students how to learn and how to form opinions based on facts. This includes separating fact, fiction, opinion, and propaganda, as well as identifying what is dangerous and intended to harm. Replacement theory--a dangerous theory that fueled the Holocaust and is now propagated on fringe social media sites, but increasingly shared by national infotainment broadcasters--is one of the major lies behind the terrorist who killed 10 in Buffalo. Misinformation is intended to disempower people, plain and simple. Our children and those who lack access to resources for unfiltered information (think quality education, libraries, broadband/wifi, etc.) are most susceptible to misinformation. Social media adds another layer of complication for those populations that makes untethering from misinformation challenging.
It’s not an option to conflate race-based hate with mental illness.
The contention that these acts are simply a result of mental illness is a lie. There are innocent reasons for believing the lie, there are also nefarious reasons for spreading it. Let’s be clear, mental illness is commonplace. Most of us in our lives will experience an illness of their socio-emotional faculties. Some will experience serious implications from those illnesses. Some will suffer a lifetime. These truths about our mental health are no different from our physical health. Racism, however, is a choice. Race-based violence is also a choice. One can have mental health issues and be racist. But the violence? That violence is a function of the racism--racism that is emboldened by misinformation, fear, and hate. I think it is important that we call race-based violence what it is and not try to explain it away as something it is not.
It’s (unfortunately) not an option to shield children from the world in which they are growing up.
As a parent of three kids--a second grader, a sixth grader, an adult--I struuuuuugle with how much to share about the news, when I should share it, the words I should use, etc. There is certainly a part of me that wants to simply avoid the realities all together. Aren’t some kids too young and sensitive for this information? Will I be doing more harm to my child by exposing him/her/they to the anxiety inducing realities in the world? These and all the other questions related to talking to kids about hard realities are legitimate and require answers--good ones. Fortunately, there are some good resources out there that help us answer some of them. The National Association of School Psychologists is just one of many organizations that provide tips for talking with school-aged children about violence and traumatic news events.
In addition to these tips, I would add the reminder that every child is different and every family is different. Parents are the best judge for how much to share and in what ways. Having been a middle school principal for over ten years I can also share that there does come a point beginning in about fifth grade where try as you might, there is simply no way of protecting your child from what is happening in the world. Kids will talk. They will see things. They will hear things. As a parent, I try to err on the side of more information rather than less (usually in third grade and beyond) because I want my children to know that when they hear disturbing things, they can always talk to me about it and not take what others are saying as fact. Further, I suggest normalizing the sharing of news regularly and including the hard stuff with the stories of triumph, peace, solidarity, and community service.
Of the many things that breaks my heart about race-based violence is that parents of color don’t have a choice or even the ability to shield their children from the violence. A Black, Hispanic, or Asian parent is not given the option to prepare his/her/their children or not; they must or else they further put their child at risk. When I share the real stories of hate in the world with my own kids, I feel it is one small act of allyship I can provide my neighbors and friends who are not white by sharing the burden of hate and using it as a catalyst for social and interpersonal action. As Mr. Rogers said in the face of tragedy, “look for the helpers.” Their stories are important to tell.
It’s not an option to do nothing.
If you feel helpless in the face of all of it, you’re not alone. And while helpless is a logical place to find yourself amidst tragedy, it’s not a very productive place to stay. I wish I had some great novel advice, something other talking heads (in which I include myself) haven’t thought of. I don’t. I struggle as much as you. The best I can come with is…
The Southern Poverty Law Center, for which I have the highest respect, has a thoughtful list of 10 actions you can take to fight hate. Maybe start there. I am.
So putting pen to paper and authoring blogs on complicated topics that leave us feeling helpless and sometimes hopeless is not likely to move the needle much. I get it. But it’s something. And reading this blog is also something. And considering what is shared here is something. And holding the victims, their families, and their communities close to our heart is something. It’s all something. And lots of little somethings add up. They add up to a change in the energy of the universe. So let’s all give little somethings as often as we can. Let’s change the energy in the universe and drown out all the hate in the world until hate has no footing.
This blog is dedicated to the victims of race-based violence and their families.
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.