You need to see the water…
Learning about Equity and Inclusive Leadership as a White Educator

This past week, I had the great pleasure of leading a workshop for principals and vice-principals in one of the school boards in Ontario through the Ontario Principals’ Council. I had the presentation done about a month ahead of time. I like to work that way — get an idea way in advance so that I can think about tweaking it as I learn more about the needs of the group, updated information or new resources that pop up in between the initial planning and the day of the learning. The one thing that I couldn’t get my head around was how to introduce this learning. How can I engage the participants in a way that they can truly hear the message?

This is a summary of A Better Way Forward: Ontario’s 3-Year Anti-Racism Strategic Plan that I created in a sketchnote.

Learning about Equity isn’t new in Ontario. Despite the documents the Province’s strategy, Realizing the Promise of Diversity: ONTARIO’S EQUITY AND INCLUSIVE EDUCATION STRATEGY (2009) and the Equity and Inclusive Education in Ontario Schools: GUIDELINES FOR POLICY DEVELOPMENT AND IMPLEMENTATION (2014) as well as legislation, Creating Safe and Accepting Schools: Information for Parents about the Accepting Schools Act, Bill 13, 2012, the Province’s strategic document, Achieving Excellence: A Renewed Vision for Education in Ontario and the latest, A Better Way Forward: Ontario’s 3-Year Anti-Racism Strategic Plan, 2017 as well as school board policies, the work and the learning seems to evade us.

Boards recognize the need for their educators to learn, understand and act in different ways to ensure the well being and achievement of all of our learners. We are at a point that if we remain complacent, we are by default complicit.

The biggest barrier in my mind through this work, is the educators themselves. Until we tackle the idea of white privilege, we will continue to see this as something outside of ourselves. I know that is harsh but it is true.

I knew that the board I was going to speak with would be predominantly white. I also knew, from experience and really, just common sense, that if we went there…if we talked about Equity and Inclusive Leadership as something that begins with us and how we benefit from systemic oppression each and every day as white educators, that the learning would stop before I even entered the room. At the same time, I recognize that part of white privilege is the importance of allyship and using my access to these spaces to push not only the discomfort of those participating, but mine as well. Allyship means that you always take discomfort over comfort. You put yourself in the path of resistance.

Too often I have seen my friends and colleagues as people of colour being judged differently than I am. I can literally say the exact same thing as they do and they will be seen as angry and judgemental and I will be seen as compassionate and understanding. I recognize that I cannot call myself an ally unless I too engage with that discomfort that is thrust upon my friends and colleauges of colour each and every day. I have to speak up, share my story, talk about my feelings and mostly, work to help my white colleagues see truth.

So this is how my opening came about…

I asked a friend of mine why he thought I can see it when other white folks can’t. Being a religious man, he tells me that I can see because God allows me to see it. At the same time, another friend of mine confides in me that he is acutely aware of his male privilege in our department and yet, he can choose to not see it. Then it struck me…

I thought about the Marshall McLuhan quote, about fish not discovering water.

“One thing about which fish know exactly nothing is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to perceive the element they live in.”

Marshall McLuhan, War and Peace in the Global Village

I have this wonderful book that is a commencement speech by David Foster Wallace called, This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occassion, About Living a Compassionate Life. He urges the listeners and readers to live a conscious life. It starts like this:

And then he writes, “The immediate point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”

So this is how I start the learning…

I urge the participants to suspend reality and see the water while recognizing that the water is actually the white privilege we swim in each day. We don’t see it because we are taught not to see it. We are taught to believe that everything we achieved is because of hard work and that there were no forces working on our behalf to ensure we go there. It is not to say that we didn’t work hard — it’s just that for some, working hard will never be enough.

So when Peggy McIntosh explains: ““I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege…” in her article, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (1988) we must believe it. This was an article I read when I was in the Faculty of Education in 1993/94. I thought it was a standard piece that all educators were expected to read when they were learning how to be a teacher and yet, when I presented to this group about 1.5 hours outside of Toronto, not one person raised his or her hand.

It is important to note that the idea of privilege is about race but it is also about heteronormative, cisgendered, able-bodied, Christian…basically everything that falls outside of Audre Lorde’s definition of the mythical norm:

Somewhere, on the edge of consciousness, there is what I call the mythical norm, which each one of us within our hearts knows “that is not me.” In america [sic], this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, christian [sic], and financially secure. It is with this mythical norm that the trappings of power reside within this society. ~Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1984) , p 116

At the end of the session last week a few people came up to me to thank me. A couple of them said that they had learned this stuff so many times but somehow this time was different. I am so grateful that they were willing to see that water.

It isn’t the learning that changes but how we enter into the learning that must be different. It isn’t meant to be a defence of what you believe to be right and equitable but a willingness to listen and consider.

I mean, how can any of us breathe if we are fish out of water?


Originally published on Medium on May 22, 2017.

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