By Frances Knight Thompson and Allison Zmuda
Frances Knight Thompson, M. S. Ed. is a retired educator and school counselor with a passion for equity in education, high expectations and academic excellence for all students. She devotes her time to community service and to advocacy for equity and equality in classrooms everywhere.
We move through the world differently from one another. The generational and historical treatment of Black people in our country, since its inception, has led to marginalization and inequality. At this point, many Black Americans are exhausted from the grief, the open bigotry and racism, and exhausted from trying to convince White people that racism is real and alive in our country. Feeling like the “us”/”them” syndrome is pervasive and that the gap is widening.
Without conversations that are civil yet courageous and compassionate, race relations will continue as status quo. Yes, everyone is born into different circumstances and we all have significant challenges we need to overcome. But white privilege means not having to endure the questioning and second guessing that comes from the color of your skin.
Storytelling invites us to share our lived experiences so that we observe our commonalities and differences with compassion and without judgement. Ten years ago, Allison facilitated a meeting with approximately 100 divisional and site-based instructional specialists in Virginia Beach. Frances was one of the invited guests to be in an inner circle of educators known for their exceptional and effective work with Black students.
We both walked into this professional learning conversation with our own frames of reference, what we hoped could come out of the meeting, and what we were willing to share.
Reminiscing about first day – Over ten years ago
My first encounter with courageous and compassionate conversations about race happened in an educational setting. I was invited to a city-wide professional development session to discuss racial achievement data through the lens of my professional experience as a counselor of gifted students. What happened that day opened my eyes and revealed the possibility of finding solutions for this racial gap while exploring attitudes and experiences with a facilitator who was comfortable enough to open the door and create a space for open and honest dialogue.
I remember being amazed at this white woman (Allison) who was so willing to talk about race and so open about the racial disparity in achievement issues.
She made a statement in that meeting that I will never forget. She confronted the data and asked if everyone believed that Black students were capable of learning and that if not, they could promptly leave the conversation.
Which was stunning back then because I just received this on my Twitter feed in the fall of 2020 –
“Either Black boys are genetically and intellectually predisposed to negative outcomes or educators—and society—have failed miserably in engaging them. I know it’s the latter.” Dr. Daryl Howard in Teaching Tolerence.org
I remember becoming emotional when asked to talk about my “why I’m here” – my adult nephew who went through his entire school career each year thinking that his teachers didn’t like him.
First conversation with Allison was a true listening session – each educator shared their “why” and no judgements were made, no questions were asked – each was received on its own merit. It made the conversation even more intense as educators began to share from their hearts. Allison created a “safe space” for me without even realizing it.
Reminiscing about first day – Over ten years ago
I was asked to work with city-wide instructional coaches on raising achievement of African American males. The initial conversations around the room indicated that they were treating it as an intellectual exercise rather than a willingness to investigate more systemic and cultural practices and habits. There were only two black women in an audience of close to 100 people and they were not saying a word. Body language was stony, arms crossed. I walked over to them during the first break and we began to have a quiet, heartfelt conversation that led to the multi-year courageous conversation work around race.
As we began to wade into brave conversations around race, there was an initial impatience with many white staff members. I remember in our first fishbowl conversation, one of the instructional coaches that was observing stood up and remarked, “When are you going to tell us the strategies you used to raise achievement of the black students you worked with.Why do you keep talking about your own stories?” Someone in the inner circle turned to address her directly — “because if you don’t care to know who we are you can’t teach us.”
When we left the meeting that day, the group in the inner circle felt connected to one another and emboldened to create brave spaces for these conversations to continue. As a result, for the next several years, there was a city-wide initiative that was led by this original group to create space and protocols to engage in these complex and uncomfortable conversations.
What We Learned From These Conversations.
When we began to facilitate these conversations, our norms were simple — speak your truth and actively listen to better understand. Although many began by wanting to talk at only an intellectual level, we were able to break through that defense and hear the personal, heartfelt, and agonizing narratives of their struggles. The courage and vulnerability it takes for people of color to share their painful stories with white folks and the way white folks engage without fixing, marginalizing, or dismissing is what we need right now in our neighborhoods, our schools, our churches, our town councils.
Trust and respect are products of relationships birthed from courageous and compassionate conversations. Absent that, everything becomes heavy and potentially offensive.
How to Keep the Conversations Going
- Black Americans have been marginalized and need to be heard. Not to be agreed with but to be heard. Not to be minimalized, but to be heard. Not to solve the issues of race and racism, just a pledge to do your part to be better at understanding what it means to be Black in America.
- Experience what it’s like to feel the color of one’s own skin. Feeling the color of your skin can be a new experience for those who have never been “the only” in a professional or social setting. It can prompt feelings that only Black, Indigenous, and people of color experience on a regular basis.
- Color blindness is not a virtue. Instead, it is an impossible racial construct. Rather than say, “I don’t see color (color blind)”, be “color brave” and say, “I try not to treat people DIFFERENT because of the color of their skin.” When people of color have to digest the denial of their appearance and their culture, that’s when the pill can get bitter and become hard to swallow.
- Notice the feelings behind the words. Many Black Americans feel like they are constantly held to a higher standard just to have the same opportunities as whites, constantly proving their intelligence, leadership, work ethic, and professional appearance. Yet, they also are systematically overlooked for their talent, expertise, cultural perspective by educators, HR directors, voters, bank officers, etc.