On Public Debate, Naming the Enemy, and White Privilege: “a most disagreeable mirror”

Let’s start with one of the most heated public and political issues in the U.S. for at least four decades since Roe v. Wade: the abortion debate.

How does that debate resonate differently if framed as Pro-Life v. Pro-Abortion when compared to Anti-Abortion v. Pro-Choice? Or how does that debate resonate differently if framed as the rights of the unborn child versus women’s rights?

But the abortion debate reveals more than just the power of naming the enemy in that contest of ideologies because the abortion debate has often devolved into mostly a struggle for power, one that leaves in its wake both the claimed concern for the unborn child and women. In other words, too often the abortion debate is about scoring public points or making political hay—and not about the welfare of marginalized human beings, especially in the context of race and racism (without the intervention of the courts, affluent white women had access to reproductive rights that poor black women were denied).

And then if we dig deeper, the abortion debate in its most extreme and insensitive forms also becomes a battle between privileged agents, ones who ignore the race and class issues that significantly overlap the more narrow debate about access to abortion or reproductive rights.

For several years now, I have watched and participated in an increasingly hostile education reform debate that has many of the same characteristics I have identified above.

Early in my public (and evolving) role writing about that reform (in the more recent of thirty-plus years advocating for reform as part of my daily practice as a classroom teacher at both the high school and higher education levels), I found the need to define the debate as a struggle between No Excuses Reformers (NER)—who focus on in-school only reform as accountability—and Social Context Reformers (SCR)—who call for both social and educational reform as equity—aligning myself with the latter.

Also early in that public effort, I confronted directly and even interacted with some of the prominent agents of NER, something I gradually stopped doing. However, those contentious exchanges inevitably spurred my being framed as anti-reform.

Coming from advocates of NER, that label offended me greatly—again because I entered education and then committed my work as a teacher for decades to very unpopular reforms such as expanding the canon to include black and female writers, ending tracking, and erasing the masked racial bigotry of my small home town that was reflected in the high school’s disciplinary and curricular practices.

However, recently Andre Perry and Angela Dye have also used the label “anti-reform” and then I came across this Tweet:

Here I had to step back from my entrenched knee-jerk response to the “anti-reform” label because for Perry, Dye, and Thinnes, the use of “anti-reform” is in the context of many people I have framed as SCR advocates becoming so committed to fighting NER, Perry has noted “that overwhelmingly white movements pursuing change for black and brown communities are inherently paternalistic.” In other words, the two dominant voices debating education reform are often indistinguishable in their missionary zeal and their tendency to ignore the very communities, families, and children historically and currently mis-served by both reform agendas and traditional public schooling.

Thinnes has also commented further (here and here), reaching a powerful and important conclusion:

Exploring these [nuanced] questions [about TFA] this last year have helped start to move me from my own simplistic “us and them” camp mentality; to recognize the richness of the social justice commitments that many individuals are bringing to many sectors and orgs; to wonder what kind of systemic transformation ‘we’ actually envision; and to question who it is, exactly, that ‘we’ are really fighting for.

For me, then, I must stress that when NER advocates toss out the label “anti-reform,” I am skeptical, even cynical, about the intention, but “anti-reform” works for Perry, Dye, and Thinnes in a much different and significant way: This is a warning flag, a vital warning flag, that all along the so-called education reform spectrum, as Thinnes notes, the “us v. them” mentality allows “reform” to be yet another insensitive and blunt baseball bat swung in self-righteousness, battering indiscriminately.

Thirty-plus years into intensive state and federal education reform have not resulted in the sorts of educational or social outcomes politicians have promised and the public has expected. In fact, the reforms themselves have increasingly become secondary to the war and those poised to benefit from that reform debate.

Perry, Dye, and Thinnes—among others—require us to step back from that debate and recognize that white privilege/white denial remain the poisons infecting the so-called “both sides,” whether we label those sides NER v. SCR or reformers v. anti-reformers.

Social and educational justice advocacy that forefronts race and racism must unite everyone dedicated to education reform, and in doing so, this must stop being a war of privilege, one that is deaf and blind to the voices and interests of black, brown, and poor people.

In the August 1965 Ebony, James Baldwin began “The White Man’s Guilt”: “I have often wondered, and it is not a pleasant wonder, just what what white Americans talk about with one another,” adding:

I wonder this because they do not, after all, seem to find very much to say to me, and I concluded long ago that they found the color of my skin inhibitory. This color seems to operate as a most disagreeable mirror, and a great deal of one’s energy is expended in reassuring white Americans that they do not see what they see.

It is 50 years later, and Baldwin’s incisive confrontation of white-as-blind, white-as-deaf to the black condition, of the “most disagreeable mirror” is now being replicated in an education war too often being fought as if the greatest historical and current failure of education doesn’t involve black, brown, and poor people.

Baldwin’s refrain—”White man, hear me!”—in the context of the education reform movement being too white to matter, in the context of #BlackLivesMatter, demands an end to white privilege and white denial that maintain the burden of the accusatory gaze on black, brown, and poor communities, families, and students.

“[P]eople who imagine that history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it),” Baldwin argued, “are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.”

This is the education reform movement challenged by Perry, Dye, and Thinnes—a battle between mostly white advocates, impaled on their own missionary zeal and demanding that other people do what they themselves are incapable of doing.

Before us we have an enemy we seem to refuse to name, the white privilege at the root of the historical failure of universal public education and the remaining white privilege derailing both sides of the reform debate.

From New Orleans to #BlackLivesMatter, the echo of Baldwin’s “White man, hear me!” remains drowned out beneath the white noise of reform debate.

The responsibility lies with that privilege to see ourselves, to change ourselves, and thus to change the world we have created and maintained.

See Also

Why Liberals Separate Race from Class

3 thoughts on “On Public Debate, Naming the Enemy, and White Privilege: “a most disagreeable mirror””

  1. In response to your piece titled, “Critical Pedagogy: On being the Other,” I was writing my own piece titled, “Critical Pedagogy: The Other-Other.” It seems what you have written above taps into what I am trying to say. Below is a sample of my line of thinking…

    “I appreciate Thomas’s discussion of the ‘other’ phenomenon and appreciate even more his willingness to add to the conversation the treatment of race and gender as an additional form of othering. Indirectly, he offers another construct worth considering—the other-other.

    Being progressive, female, and unapologetically black* (explained in the piece) as a critical pedagogue gives me a unique perspective among the others who are typically white and male. From my vantage point, I can see how our pursuit as critical pedagogues to fight against de-marginalization, can and still does marginalize. Mainly because there is no one perfect construct of critical pedagogy; yet being full of passion, we want to plow through spaces that we perceive to be uncritical and unjust. It is ironic that many of these critical pedagogues, those doing the plowing, have not dealt with their individual privilege and steadfast sense of entitlement, so as to think they should dominate conversations as the superior, all-knowing authority on critical practice… on where and how it shows up.”

    Paul, it looks like we are entangled in a conceptual dance. Thank you for furthering the discussion and giving me the opportunity to flush out my own thinking!!

  2. Thank you for continuing to revisit, question, and rethink your positions and reasoning in these highly and hotly contested fields of debate. When you describe members of both sides of the reform debate as “demanding that other people do what they themselves are incapable of doing” I was struck by the familiarity of this dilemma, in a different context, however: my classroom. It is commonplace for me to place my elementary students in charge of making their own groups using certain set perameters. They often struggle with this task. Their individual priorities may clash with doing what would benefit the immediate needs of the class (I.e. They need to separate from a good friend and/or join a group of less favored classmates). It never fails that from a quickly organized and socially satisfied group, one or more will offer suggestions or simply tell ‘left over’ students where to go. This is typically where I call “time out” and interject “before you tell someone else where to go, how about just going there yourself?” And then I explain that it’s very easy for us to prescribe solutions for others as long as we don’t apply the same solutions for ourselves. We say we want to help and we do that by telling someone else to do the thing that we don’t want to or feel we cannot do. I say this often throughout the year and after a while the kids get better at moderating this impasse on their own.

    My point here is to illustrate what I think may be a very human response to coping with perceived threat – individual or shared. We are quick to offload our burden on anyone else we think will be able to just “take it.” It may be a default setting for some. Unexamined privilege or a general sense of entitlement certainly provide fertile soil for cultivating this type of engagement with others, especially with ‘other-others’ to use Angela’s phrasing. Casting off the uncomfortable and displeasing aspects of formal engagement as a habit surfaces again and again as a form of privilege.
    In my classroom I can draw attention to this tendency and use it as a teaching & learning opportunity to bring about a change in behaviors. Out in the open political sphere that same task becomes far more challenging and diffuse. Whom are we addressing? Who is the ally? Who the enemy? And who are ‘we’? When we argue in one direction or the other, it is assumed that we know. Your post here calls us to pause and think more deeply; to readjust our lenses to perhaps see things that we have been missing, and to risk having our position shift. The reality of our humanness strikes again. We remain unfinished and flawed even and perhaps most plainly when we are so thoroughly convinced of our own righteousness.

  3. Thank you for joining this conversation, Paul. I’ve been revisiting to reread and reflect since I found it. I keep coming back to my belief that all social relationships including between movements thrive harmoniously when all parties focus one the other more than themselves. Admittedly, this takes trust, which is what is lacking in many situations for a myriad of reasons. In race relations specifically, it has much to do with generations of broken trust in the past. However, experience has also taught me that demanding trust does not work. It must be given freely & generously for it to work, and for communities that have been consistently and systemically abused and/or oppressed, freely trusting can be life threatening.

    Your article has reminded me and helped me articulate the need for those with privilege to trust first for we are the ones with the least to lose, and because we have less to lose by giving trust before we get it, we have a responsibility to make ourselves vulnerable in order to earn the trust of those who’ve been forcibly vulnerable for generations.

    Thank you for your voice, your reminder, & your exploration of these difficult conversations.

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