Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Poems and Resources for Educators on Understanding and Disrupting White Supremacy

EDIT (8/5/19): This was originally posted in 2017 and was focused on Charlottesville, but I've since added even more resources to this list, and broadened the scope to disrupting and dismantling white supremacy in general. That's work that has to happen early, and teachers can play an important role.

Confederate statue in Durham torn down; image from here.
At the top of this week, the Washington Post published this piece by Valerie Strauss: The first thing teachers should do when school starts is talk about hatred in America. Here’s help.

Update: a couple other good links:
Those links contain more links to resources, readings, and lesson plans, and may be a good place to start for educators who know that current events matter, and that not talking about Charlottesville makes a statement to your students that's just as loud as any conversation or critical exploration.

In that spirit, and because my background is in using spoken word as a tool for narrative-building and opening up spaces for authentic dialogue, I wanted to share a few poems that have been on my mind lately. As always, list-making is tricky. This is not a list of the "best" poems about this topic, or even a list of just "poems about racism." This is a list of poems that might be useful for educators looking for artistic work that can prompt some critical thinking about hate, white supremacy, and the recent events in Charlottesville.

I'm also thinking about this list in terms of what work needs to be done in educational spaces. Understanding the motivations of-- and contextual factors that cultivate-- white supremacists is one angle, but so is making connections between the explicit hate espoused by neo-nazis and the more subtle, implicit ways that white supremacist ideology pops up in everyday life. I think these poems, in different ways, explore those connections. Maybe we shouldn’t need personal, human stories to create empathy, to illuminate that other human beings matter. But they can be tools for that, when it’s called for. These poems also use metaphor, symbolism, narrative, and other tools to push the listener beyond the notion that racism is just "people being mean to each other because they're different."

Of course, not every poem is appropriate for every audience. Be sure to review before presenting, both in terms of language/accessibility stuff and relevance. Also of course, "talking about racism" is a first step, not a last one, and we should challenge ourselves to find ways to embed anti-racist approaches and policies into our schools and institutions in more concrete ways as well.

Joseph Capehart - “Colorblind”
This poem uses humor to open up space for a powerful critique for the very common idea that “not seeing color” is the answer to racism. “You want to strip me clean; bleach away the parts of me that make you uncomfortable… when you say ‘colorblind,’ you are asking me to forget.”

Storytelling can communicate information in ways that facts and statistics can't. In this poem/TEDx Talk, Jared Paul simply tells five stories from his life that illustrate how whiteness works in context, even for people who would not consider themselves privileged.

Guante - "How to Explain White Supremacy to a White Supremacist"
I wanted to write something about how "white supremacy" is bigger and more insidious than just literal white supremacists marching around with torches. But this is also about highlighting the *connection* between those people and the everyday acts/attitudes/policies that make them possible. Pushing back has to happen at multiple levels too-- denouncing and disrupting specific acts of terror, but also uprooting their worldview in the classroom, the office, the church, the comment thread, the home, and everywhere.

Patricia Smith - Skinhead
A classic poem that seeks to explore the motivations of hateful bigots, without ever making excuses for them. There's so much in here about empathy (in a critical sense), perspective, and what lenses people use to see the world.

Kevin Yang - “Come Home”
This poem is warm, funny, and approachable, using empathy-generating personal stories to make a larger point about xenophobia, the refugee experience, and finding home. “Call me Hmong before you call me American, because Hmong is the closest word I know to home.”

This poem is heartbreaking. Sad poems can be useful when crafting activities or discussions focused on walking in someone else's shoes. “Year after year she makes flowers bloom in the hood, petals in the face of this land that doesn’t want her here.”

Talking about racism involves *talking* about racism, and this piece has always been a favorite of mine because of how it illuminates how those conversations so often go. It's absurdist, and even funny, but it points to something deadly serious and can be a useful entry point for talking about how we talk about racism.

I can't think of a better deconstruction of the excuses and rationalizations that white people use to distance themselves from white supremacy. Obviously, this won't work for every audience, in every situation, but it can be a very powerful exploration of how rhetoric can be used to mask racism.

Another piece that uses juxtaposition and humor to highlight the absurdity of how white supremacy is, and isn't, talked about in the US.

William Evans - “They Love Us Here”
Students sometimes struggle with the notion that tokenism, “positive” stereotypes, or other forms of “benevolent racism” are harmful. Even well-meaning people can contribute to a white supremacist society. This poem can be an entry point into that conversation.

Carlos Andrés Gómez - "12 Reasons to Abolish C.B.P & I.C.E"
So much white supremacist terrorism takes root in xenophobia and anti-immigrant hate. This poem can be a first step toward interrogating that.

Denice Frohman - "Borders"
Yet another poem showcasing the power of storytelling; this is a poem that might have different things to say to different audiences- but they're all valuable.

Aamer Rahman - "Reverse Racism"
I'm cheating here since this isn't a poem; it's just really good. One reason we talk so much about "racism" in the US rather than "white supremacy" is because racism can be (incorrectly) framed as attitude. And anyone of any identity can have a bad attitude. But white supremacy is about power. It's about history. And this short video illustrates that perfectly.
    Hope those can be useful; feel free to share more in the comments. 

    Of course, these are all for sparking dialogue, because dialogue matters. But action also matters. Whether it's a classroom full of high-schoolers, a book club, a discussion group in a church basement, or some other setting, what matters is how we translate these discussions, these epiphanies, and these feelings into action. That's another post, but hopefully, there's something here that can be a useful start.

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